Zechariah and the angel of the Lord

Zechariah’s prophetic ministry begins after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. The first part of the Book of Zechariah covers the prophet’s early days in ministry in Jerusalem, from 520 B.C. until completion of the second temple in 515 B.C. During this time, Zechariah – whose name means “the Lord remembers” – encourages the Israelites to complete the temple, restore the priesthood, and purify the city. 

The later portions of his ministry, which some scholars date as late as 470 B.C., foretell the coming of Israel’s true king, the Messiah, who is to reign over Jerusalem. Zechariah outlines God’s future prophetic program for Israel from Messiah’s first coming to his second coming. He offers a message of hope, urging the people to look up. The Lord remembers his people and will come to deliver them in the last days.

The first six verses of chapter 1 come in the wake of Haggai’s challenge to the people to finish rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Back in the city for nearly two decades, and having laid the temple’s foundation amid great fanfare, the Israelites have fallen prey to opposition and discouragement – so much so that they haven’t picked up a tool in sixteen years. Haggai’s primary purpose is to get the people to restart construction of the temple. 

Now, Zechariah urges the people to repent as well, for without spiritual renewal, a new temple is hollow tribute to their sovereign deliverer. Yahweh vows to return to his people if they return to him (1:3). The Israelites embrace God’s call, in contrast to previous generations that persisted in sinful rebellion (1:6). The stage is set, and the Lord is prepared to bless his people and restore the place where he has chosen for his name to dwell (cf. Deut. 12:5; 1 Kings 14:21; Neh. 1:9).

From Zechariah 1:7 to 6:15, the prophet receives a series of eight visions, each of which an angel interprets. The Lord gives Zechariah all eight visions in a single evening. Their sweeping scope stretches from Judah’s postexilic condition to an eschatological day in the distant future when Messiah reigns over a universal kingdom. 

In the first and fourth visions, we encounter a figure described both as a man and the angel of the Lord. Then, in Zechariah 12, Yahweh promises to defend Judah so that the weakest among the people is like King David, and the house of David is “like God, like the angel of the LORD” (12:8). In this post, we’ll examine the first vision.

Fragrant myrtles and heavenly courtrooms

Let’s begin with Zechariah’s encounter with the angel of the LORD in the first vision:

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 son of Berechiah, son of Iddo:

I looked out in the night and saw a man riding on a chestnut horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in the valley. Behind him were chestnut, brown, and white horses. I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking to me replied, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to patrol the earth.”

They reported to the angel of the LORD standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and right now the whole earth is calm and quiet.” 

Then the angel of the LORD responded, “How long, LORD of Armies, will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that you have been angry with these seventy years?” The LORD replied with kind and comforting words to the angel who was speaking with me.

So the angel who was speaking with me said, “Proclaim: The LORD of Armies says: I am extremely jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. I am fiercely angry with the nations that are at ease, for I was a little angry, but they made the destruction worse. Therefore, this is what the LORD says: In mercy, I have returned to Jerusalem; my house will be rebuilt within it ​— ​this is the declaration of the LORD of Armies ​— ​and a measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem. 

“Proclaim further: This is what the LORD of Armies says: My cities will again overflow with prosperity; the LORD will once more comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.”

Zech. 1:7-17, emphasis added

The theme of the first vision is the Lord’s promise to renew Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Despite the people’s stubborn rebellion and seventy-year exile, Yahweh is restoring a believing remnant and reestablishing his name in Jerusalem. This should comfort his people as they regain their privileged position among the nations as Yahweh’s key witnesses.

Distinguishing the characters

It’s challenging to distinguish between the characters in this vision. First, there is a man riding a chestnut horse (v. 8), who also is depicted as standing among the myrtle trees in the valley (vv. 8, 10). Next, there is “the angel who was talking to me” (vv. 9, 14). Then, there is “the angel of the LORD,” who stands among the myrtle trees (vv. 10-11), receives a report from those Yahweh sends to patrol the earth (v. 11), and asks the LORD of Armies a question (v. 12). Finally, there is the LORD, also called the LORD of Armies, who sends out angelic patrols (v. 10) and answers the angel of the LORD’s question by directing his remarks to the angel speaking with Zechariah (vv. 14-17). Could we get some name tags, please?

To make matters more confusing, the angel of the LORD, the LORD of Armies, and the LORD all seem to act and speak with divine authority. How are we to make sense of the characters in this vision? More to the point, how may we discern the identity of the angel of the LORD? Is he a man, an angel, or a manifestation of Yahweh?

While Bible commentators hold diverse views about Zechariah’s first vision, it seems biblically faithful to conclude:

First, the man riding the chestnut horse is none other than the angel of the LORD. Both figures – the man and the angel of the LORD – are depicted as standing among the myrtle trees and seem to be the same person.

Second, the angel of the LORD is distinct from the angel who talks with Zechariah. The angel of the LORD seems to be greater in authority than the angel who accompanies the prophet and interprets his eight visions. For example, the angels who patrol the earth report to the angel of the LORD (v. 11). Further, the angel of the LORD directly addresses the LORD of Armies, likely on behalf of Zechariah (v. 12).

Third, the LORD of Armies and the LORD are references to the same divine figure, who in this passage is distinct from the angel of the LORD.

Fourth, the name LORD is applied to the angel of the LORD in other Old Testament passages (e.g., Exod. 3; Num. 22:22-35; Judg. 5:23; 2 Sam. 24), while the title LORD of Armies suggests the angel of the LORD elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures but is not exclusively applied to him (cf. Isa. 6:1-13; see The LORD of Armies: A closer look). Taken together, these references illustrate the ancient Hebrew understanding of two Yahweh figures – one visible and one invisible. 

So, if we look carefully, we see three primary figures in this vision: the angel of the LORD, the angel who interprets the vision, and the LORD / LORD of Armies. Let’s look more closely at the angel of the LORD.

A man riding a chestnut horse

We first encounter the angel of the LORD as “a man riding on a chestnut horse” and “standing among the myrtle trees in the valley” (vv. 8, 10). In many previous appearances, the angel of the LORD emerges as a man (e.g., Gen. 18; 32:24-32; Josh. 5:13-15). Sometimes he is seen riding – for example, in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21-22); in the air with a drawn sword (1 Chron. 21:16); on a chariot-throne (Ezek. 1); or with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7:13-14) – but this is the first time we see him riding a horse.

Further, it’s significant that he is described as standing among the myrtle trees in the valley. The myrtle is a fragrant evergreen shrub growing all across Israel, especially beside streams. Myrtle trees are used to help build rough shelters for the feast of tabernacles (Neh. 8:15), which in a prophetic sense foreshadows the days when God comes to dwell with his people. Consequently, myrtle becomes a popular name for the nation. The myrtle trees in this vision, then, may represent Israel. 

In addition, Zechariah sees the rider in a valley, likely the lowest part of the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem. This could symbolize the return of the Lord to his people but not yet to the city because the temple has yet to be rebuilt. Another possible view is that the valley signifies Israel in a time of deep humiliation. After all, the people have recently returned from exile. Their attempts to rebuild the temple have ground to a halt. And opposition seems to come from every side. So, just as the man in Zechariah’s vision stands among myrtle trees in a valley, the angel of the LORD stands with Israel during a time of trouble.

What a perfect time for this man to be identified as the angel of the LORD. As we’ve seen throughout this study, the angel of the LORD sometimes is described as the LORD himself (Gen. 16:10-13; Exod. 3:2-6; 23:20-21; Judg. 6:11-18), and sometimes he is portrayed as distinct from God (2 Sam. 24:16; Zech. 1:12). Yet, he always acts in divine ways: revealing, delivering, commanding, destroying, judging. 

Though Zechariah lives some five hundred years before Jesus is born, the Son of God has always existed. So, his manifestation as the angel of the LORD illustrates his divine work on earth prior to the Incarnation. And just like Jesus, who humbles himself by taking on human flesh and walking among us, the angel of the LORD appears as a man to Zechariah and brings comfort, hope, and encouragement to his people in their valley of despair. 

Calm and quiet

Next, the Lord sends out riders on their horses to patrol the earth (v. 10). No doubt, these are angelic beings who report their findings, not to the Lord who sent them, but to the angel of the LORD. “We have patrolled the earth, and right now the whole earth is calm and quiet,” the riders testify (v. 11). The word quiet translates the Hebrew shaqat, used elsewhere in the Old Testament to signify the absence of war (Judg. 3:30) or a sense of security (Ezek. 38:11). 

In most contexts, this would be welcome news. But not to the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem. The very enemies who have eviscerated them over the last seventy years, as well as current neighbors who threaten their security on every side, are enjoying tranquility. If Yahweh has brought his people home, offered them hope, and urged them to rebuild their lives, why doesn’t he do something about their prosperous enemies?

This unspoken question prompts the angel of the LORD to say to Yahweh, “How long, LORD of Armies, will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that you have been angry with these seventy years?” (v. 12). The angel knows the answer, for he is divine. Yet he voices the question for the benefit of his audience, much as Jesus often does for the sake of his disciples when he prays (e.g., John 11:38-44). 

Previously, we have witnessed the angel of the LORD delivering messages from God to his people. But here, the angel intercedes on behalf of the people, who long to know when their wait for restoration finally comes to an end. In a similar way, the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus today is seated at the Father’s right hand, interceding for us as we await fulfillment of his promises (Rom. 8:34). 

Duane Lindsey notes, “That the divine Messenger addressed the LORD Almighty in prayer supports a distinction of Persons in the Godhead, and contributes to the implicit doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament.”

The Lord responds immediately with “kind and comforting words” – not to the angel of the LORD, but to the interpreting angel who accompanies Zechariah (v. 12). The Lord’s reply, along with the divine presence of the angel of the LORD, are designed to comfort the prophet and the people he serves. 

Divine jealousy and great comfort

Note how the LORD of Armies proclaims his extreme jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion. We tend to think of jealousy in malevolent terms, as a dark and petty demonstration of our fallen natures. And indeed, the Bible cautions us against human jealousy as a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). But with God, who cannot sin, jealousy is a positive attribute of his divine nature. The Old and New Testaments bear witness to the essential jealousy of God, who desires that we worship him for our own good (Exod. 20:4-5; Josh. 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22-23; Ps. 78:58; 1 Cor. 10:21-22; Jas. 4:4-5). As one commentary puts it:

God’s jealousy is His passionate commitment to that which rightfully belongs to Him – whether it is His glory that cannot be shared with another, His right to be worshiped as the one true God, or the affections and devotion of His people.

Next, see how the LORD of Armies assures Zechariah of the action that boils over from divine jealousy: “I am fiercely angry with the nations that are at ease, for I was a little angry, but they made the destruction worse” (v. 15). By comparison, Yahweh is only a little angry with his own people – an anger that prompted the Babylonian captivity. But he is hopping mad with the very nations he used as instruments of divine discipline. They exceeded their boundaries, and Yahweh is not about to sit idly by while they enjoy unbroken quiet.

The Lord ends his message with words of great comfort: “In mercy, I have returned to Jerusalem; my house will be built within it – this is the declaration of the LORD of Armies – and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem” (v. 16). Prior to the exile, Ezekiel sees a vision of God’s glory departing the temple (Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23). But now, the Lord assures Zechariah he has returned to oversee restoration of his dwelling place. Further, the reference to “a measuring line” is meant to assure Zechariah that the holy city is under the Lord’s sovereign care. Jeremiah records the Lord’s promise of a measuring line, a symbol of restoration (Jer. 31:38-40). That promise is about to be fulfilled.

Last, the LORD of Armies proclaims, “My cities will again overflow with prosperity; the LORD will once more comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (v. 17). Judah’s towns and villages may be struggling now for survival, but the day is coming when God so blesses his people that their city walls are unable to contain the wealth within.

The angel of the LORD plays a key role in Zechariah’s first vision. He stands as a visible presence among the people in their humility, offering them hope and the promise of a rebuilt city and temple. The nation’s security, status, and wealth are to be restored. More importantly, the enduring presence of the LORD of Armies is about to return to the place he has chosen for his name to dwell. 

Next: Zechariah’s fourth vision

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.