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Zechariah 1:7-8 Bay, sorrel and white horses

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 9, 2022

7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. 8 I had a vision in the night—There before me was a man riding a bay horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were horses that were bays, sorrels and whites.

About four months had gone by since the first of Zechariah’s sermons. What the prophet and his countrymen called the eleventh month was our February. On this year, the lunar cycle made January 23rd the beginning of their eleventh month, and so this day was what we would call the 15th of February (their year began two weeks before Passover, Exodus 12:1-6).

Zechariah had the first of a series of visions in a single night, but he is careful not to say that he was dreaming or even sleeping. In this first vision there is a man (who can he be but Christ!) riding on a horse, with other horses behind him. Although they are not yet mentioned, there were also angels present, riding on the other horses (1:9, etc.).

Horse-riding was uncommon in Old Testament times among the Jews. There are plenty of examples of men riding mules and donkeys, from Abraham to Balaam to Absalom to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:14). Using horses to pull wagons and chariots was also common. But riding horses was a skill that was developed further east and was taken up by the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Lord used these armies and the shock of seeing men riding horses to bring his people to repentance, but God also had in mind to repay those peoples for their sins: “With you I shatter horse and rider, with you I shatter horse and driver” (Jeremiah 51:21).

In this vision, the Rider is in a ravine or deep valley among myrtle trees, the short, sweet-smelling evergreen trees of the Mediterranean. Six to twelve feet high, they have fragrant white or pinkish-white flowers and grow near streams and ponds. If the vision was of the ravine beneath the Mount of Olives on the west side, then the Rider was near Jerusalem but he had not yet entered, perhaps because the Temple was not yet completed.

As we prepare to move from this introduction into the rest of the vision, we notice the horses and their colors. It was commonplace in former times to describe horses by their color, and sometimes the color-name also revealed a common pattern for the mane and tail as well as the hide overall. There are readers who are no longer familiar with these terms.

Bay. Hebrew adom (plural adumim) is “red,” and by this I understand the very common reddish-brown horse known as a bay. Bays have blackish tails and manes, and often the lower legs (hocks) are dark or black as well.

Sorrel. Hebrew saroq (plural saruqim). This is the light reddish brown, sorrel or chestnut color common to horses throughout the world. If we were to translate this word as “brown” as some versions do, it would be the only occurrence of the word “brown” in the Bible, the Apocrypha, or the early Apostolic Fathers. Sorrel horses are distinguished as being of a uniform color; their coat, tail and mane are all the same shade. Chestnut is the common name in Britain or the Eastern United States. On this side of the Mississippi, they are called sorrel, and both terms are accepted around the world.

White / Grey. Hebrew laban (plural labanim), which is “white.” Among horses, there is no true “white” even among the so-called Dominant White breed, and they are generally known as greys even if they look white, grey, silver, or spotted like a leopard. Luther adds that such horses often have a bluish cast like the color of the sea, and he calls them die apfel grauen Hengste or “dapple-grey stallions.” I would have translated “grey” as an appropriate word to accompany bay and sorrel, but I fear this would cause more confusion than confidence in the text. Also, there is another color coming in Zechariah 6:3 which might be better translated as dappled, like Luther’s apfel grauen Hengste. We might also point out that in the same way, grey (hoary) hair can also mean white in many passages (Leviticus 19:32; Job 41:32; Proverbs 16:31).

There doesn’t seem to be any theological significance to the colors of the horses in this vision, but we will return to this question in chapter 6. In this case, all were being ridden by servants of God on the same mission. Therefore, there were simply many horses and riders. Some English translations make it seem as if only four horses were present, but the Hebrew text uses plural adjectives for the colors: There were bays, sorrels, and whites (or greys), many horses with many angelic riders.

When we are told that “he” was standing among the myrtle trees, we don’t need to do any mental gymnastics to imagine the man dismounting from the horse. Zechariah uses a participle to show that this was the man’s description throughout the vision: riding on a bay horse. When we’re told that “he” was standing among the evergreen myrtles, the “he” can refer to the horse (Hebrew differentiates between a male horse, sus, and a mare, susah). But it’s more likely that the prophet is employing metonymy, where a part stands for the whole: the rider was on his horse in the valley.

It is the prophet’s task to report what he sees in a vision, just as it is the pastor’s task to proclaim what he reads in the word of God. All of us, ministers, teachers, parents, children and members of churches, should proclaim God’s word faithfully with our words and with our actions. But more than this, we should even and perhaps especially with care and faithfulness meditate, consider and proclaim the word of God faithfully and clearly in our own hearts. It is in the heart that all sinful dissent with God’s word begins. People become discontent with God’s plans (Isaiah 30:1), God’s providence (1 Corinthians 10:13), God’s will (1 John 2:17), or God’s protection (2 Thessalonians 3:3), and the wicked thought, “I will take matters into my own hands” begins in the heart.

Like all sins, this one is covered by Christ, who graciously invites us to trust in him for all things: “Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). May the Holy Spirit strengthen your faith. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart” (Colossians 3:15). Rejoice in the thorns and nails of Calvary, the blood that brought us peace, and especially the big stone, rolled away and lying in the wet springtime grass of that Easter morning, for the borne cross and the empty tomb mean bearable crosses and empty tombs for us all.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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