The Man Standing Among the Myrtle Trees
With the Young Adults group at our church (called “Pulse“), we’ve been studying books of the Bible verse-by-verse most Friday nights for the past 14 years. We’ve learned that, when we’re in a book of the Old Testament, it is clear there are many, many references to (or metaphors for) Jesus, if we care to recognize them.
As an example, currently we are studying the book written by the Prophet Zechariah. Fourteen years after a large contingent (about 42,000) of Israelites left Babylon, with the King’s blessing, headed for Jerusalem, Zechariah, along with a contemporary prophet named Haggai, each received a very special message from God for His people, and particularly directed at the High Priest at the time (named Joshua … a Hebrew name which is at the root of the Aramaic Yeshua, or Jesus), and also Zerubbabel, Israel’s political leader.
Israel had “stalled.” When they first arrived in Jerusalem after the long journey across the desert from Babylon, they were excited about rebuilding the city’s walls and rebuilding the Temple where Yahweh God was to be worshiped.
However, due to conflicts within and challenges without, the Israelites lost sight of that vision. Haggai reveals that they gave up on the task, and each man “busied himself with his own house” instead (Haggai 1:9).
So, by the time Zechariah and Haggai came along, they were in serious need of a refocusing on the vision God had called them to. The prophet Haggai’s style was a direct kick in the seat of the pants, but Zechariah’s style was different. He was encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. In one amazing night he experienced a series of eight prophetic visions or dreams, designed to help the Israelites reacquire their divine purpose by seeing the big picture of what God was doing.
Zechariah’s first vision, in chapter 1:7-17, sets the tone:
7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, 8 “I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9 Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ 10 So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ 11 And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ 12 Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ 13 And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. 14 So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. 15 And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. 16 Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. 17 Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’”
There are a number of fascinating things that we can discover about this vision. First of all, Zechariah was startled to see “a man riding on a red horse, standing among the myrtle trees.”
Jewish scholars understand that throughout the Old Testament, the image of myrtle trees represents the Jewish nation. An evergreen, it is hardy and widespread, but not incredibly tall or majestic, like the cedars of Lebanon. Zechariah’s hearers would have understood this clearly. Myrtle leaves are fragrant but have no taste, and Jewish teachers frequently used this analogy to drive home the point that many of their hearers had a form of religion but really weren’t serious about the Torah. There is also a greater association of myrtle trees with the Jewish nation when they are under persecution, as they were in the days of Zechariah and previously.
So if the myrtle trees in this narrow ravine represent Israel, who is the man on the red horse, standing among them? The answer becomes clearer in reading verse 11, where He is called “the Angel of the Lord.” This term is frequently used throughout the Old Testament, say scholars, to reference a Christophany … the appearance of the Christ in a pre-messianic form. Since “angel” means “messenger,” “The Angel of the Lord” was the primary messenger of God. John 1 says of Jesus:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christ is clearly God’s primary vessel of communication. In John 12:49 Jesus said: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.”
So these verses therefore make it clear that it was Jesus Christ, God Himself, who stood as a man riding a red horse among the myrtle trees. God was present in the midst of Israel, despite the persecution of its enemies. This passage is making clear exactly how precious Israel was to God, and to what great extent He was present in their midst as they experienced difficulties from without and within.
But what about the red horse? This correlates with Zechariah’s eighth and final vision, recorded in chapter 6:
1 Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. 2 The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, 3 the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. 4 Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 And the angel answered and said to me,“These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”
And this vision, of four chariots with different colored horses, corresponds closely with Revelation 6, when as a result of the first seal of judgment opened by the Lamb (Christ), four horsemen issue forth on red, black, white, and pale (grey or dappled) horses. Here the red horse represents one wielding a huge sword, and he resides over a situation where people are slaying each other with abandon.
In Matthew 10:34 Jesus says, startlingly: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus is both the ultimate peacemaker, and representative of God’s ultimate judgment on mankind.
It’s interesting to note that in Zechariah 6, after issuing forth between the two “brass mountains” of God’s judgment, the charioteer of the red horses, alone, is not recorded as going a specific direction (the black and white horses go north, and the dappled south). I think it could be assumed that he remains either above it all, or omnipresent.
And red, of course, throughout Scripture, represents blood. Rev. 19:13 says of Jesus: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” Ties quite handily back to John 1, doesn’t it?
In future installments of The Crimson Worm, we’ll look more carefully at various instances, throughout the Old Testament, when the phrase “Angel of the Lord” is invoked. But, spoiler alert: The use of this phrase is always indicative of supreme authority, God’s ultimate messenger intervening in human affairs for His sake and glory.