Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, there were four horns. So I said to the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” And he answered me, “These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” Then the Lord showed me four craftsmen. I said, “What are these coming to do” And he said, “These are the horns which have scattered Judah so that no man lifts up his head; but these craftsmen have come to terrify them, to throw down the horns of the nations who have lifted up their horns against the land of Judah in order to scatter it.”
Zechariah’s second vision began when he “lifted up (his) eyes and looked, and behold, there were four horns” (1:18). This prompted Zechariah to ask the angel from the first vision who had been speaking with him, “What are these?” (v. 19a; cf. vs. 9, 13-14). The angel answered, “These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem” (v. 19b).
Keeping in mind that these visions are apocalyptic (figurative) in nature, there are several possibilities as to the meaning behind the figurative symbolism of the horns. In apocalyptic literature, the number “four” often figuratively refers to the entire world. For example, the term “the four corners of the earth” is often used to figuratively refer to the entire planet (cf. Is. 11:12; Rev. 7:1; 20:8). Horns are figuratively used in Scripture to represent power or strength (cf. Amos 6:13; Dan. 7:7-8); Daniel used them to figuratively refer to rulers exercising their power (Dan. 7:24). Daniel, not that long before the time of Zechariah, had received his own figurative prophetic visions in which he saw four beasts which would represent four kingdoms (Dan. 7:3ff). A few decades earlier, he had shown Nebuchadnezzar’s vision to refer to four empires which history shows to have been Babylon, followed by Medo-Persia, followed by Greece, followed by Rome (Dan. 2:1-45). Could these empires be what Zechariah’s “four horns” represent? Possibly, but I believe the more likely meaning behind the symbolism of the “four horns” is that they refer to any countries which had done the Jews harm throughout their history, such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Medo-Persia.
The Lord then showed Zechariah “four craftsmen” (likely carpenters or blacksmiths), prompting the prophet to ask “What are these coming to do?” (vs. 20-21a). The Lord answered that the horns had “scattered Judah so that no man lifts up his head,” but “these craftsmen have come to terrify them, to throw down the horns of the nations who have lifted up their horns against the land of Judah in order to scatter it” (1:21b).
The Jews were trying to rebuild the temple at this time, and were being hindered by enemies from other nations. The purpose of Zechariah’s first vision (1:8-17) was to give this beleaguered people comfort in the face of adversity. In like manner, God was assuring the Jews through this message to Zechariah that God would punish the nations that would do them harm by bringing their own destruction from within themselves. He had given the prophet Haggai, who was prophesying alongside Zechariah during this time, a similar message: “I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations; and I will overthrow the chariots and their riders, and the horses and their riders will go down, everyone by the sword of another” (Hag. 2:22).
Just as it takes blacksmiths and carpenters to craft horns out of metal or wood, those same blacksmiths and carpenters have the power to destroy what they had made. History has shown that nations who destroy other nations often find themselves being destroyed from within. This is all done according to the will of God. A few decades before Zechariah, God had warned Nebuchadnezzar that “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17). Nebuchadnezzar would not listen and had to learn that lesson the hard way (Dan. 4:1-37). Paul would later tell the Athenians that God has “determined (all nations’) appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). God certainly does determine the fates of nations. It would be wise for us to remember that today.