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 toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward 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 toward the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north.”
Zechariah’s eighth and final vision includes horses again. They pull chariots as they go out to patrol the whole earth on God’s mission. Although four chariots and coloured horses are mentioned, there is no indication where the red ones are sent. The only agreed direction of travel is that the black horses go north. (The obscure Hebrew text is translated variously.) It isn’t apparent whether the colours had any significance in Zechariah’s time; but if so, that knowledge has been lost.
Chariots are often linked with military activity and their patrol may represent divine power being exercised over the earth. The focus on the black horses being sent north may link to ancient traditions about the ‘foe from the north’, implying that God was acting on behalf of the restored community to quell any potential enemy uprising against them. Alternatively north may refer to the lands where the old northern tribes of Israel originally settled, whereby the vision indicates God’s commitment to the whole promised land, rather than the small area around Jerusalem. This gives a wider understanding of the people of God, not just the tribe of Judah.
Either way the purpose of the patrol is to set God’s spirit at rest across the territory. This isn’t a promise of peace, as distinct from war; but more about God settling down, being present, remaining in that land and exercising divine power there.
Zechariah is assuring the community that they are entering a period of stability; and collectively his visions proclaim that the rebuilding and restructuring of society they’ve embarked on is being blessed by God. This was important in their context; but we cannot assume that God is saying the same to us. Quite the opposite – change is needed in the Church and in the ways of the world, today!
Eternal God, we rejoice that you are alert to the affairs of earth and its people in every age. May we be equally alert to your presence, whatever our situation. Thank you for coming to us through your Spirit with reassurance and challenge, according to our need and your purposes. May we respond eagerly, ready to do your will, to build a world that offers stability for all that exists. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.