This section of the prophetic book of Zechariah begins a series of word-pictures, painting pictures to show what God has planned for His people.
“18 Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns.
19 And I said unto the angel that talked with me, What be these? And he answered me, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.
20 And the Lord shewed me four carpenters.
21 Then said I, What come these to do? And he spake, saying, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, so that no man did lift up his head: but these are come to fray them, to cast out the horns of the Gentiles, which lifted up their horn over the land of Judah to scatter it.”
The horn in Scripture is a sign of strength, of power, especially of the military variety. The people of Judah and Israel had been oppressed by wicked nations. The Assyrians had invaded, packing off most of the northern tribe to faraway lands. The Babylonian invasion had led to the exile of Jews in Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) for 70 years. Now the Persian empire, which had since conquered Babylon, was in control. They were still governing Judah, even as the Jews were restored to the promise land. There would be more invasions to come as the Macedonians would later arrive, bringing with them the Greek language and culture. These conquerors (all of them) were quite cruel and barbaric in the way that they treated the people whom they conquered. The usual choice for cities under their siege was to be entirely annihilated or to surrender to a life of hard slavery to their conquerors.
In this word-picture, God was sending a message to the people of Judah that although they have been sorely afflicted, and that there is even more to come, yet those who come against her will be themselves taken out of the picture by God. The One who sent the conquering armies would also send deliverers to take away their cruelty. It is a message of hope, to endure affliction in hope by the promise of future deliverance.
There are times when God uses what seem to be the most cruel and painful events in the lives of His people for some good purpose. It may be to teach them to depend on Him, to test their faith, or to bring them to repentance by making sin bitter to them when they get to taste the fruit of it. But in any of these differing purposes, God is working all things for the good of those who love Him. As Christians, there are times that we have to submit to God’s will by enduring terrible hardships, whether emotional, physical, financial, social, or political. But in all of this we can be assured that God’s anger against His beloved children will find its limit. His purpose is not to kill, but to discipline; not to injure, but to heal. What He has given you to bear will come to an end in His timing. Although for those who are on the road to destruction, this life is the best it gets, yet, for those who have been adopted in Christ by grace, this life is the worst it will ever be. There will come a day when our great and loving heavenly Father will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when pain and sorrow will be no more, forever. In the meantime He has given us afflictions to endure to get us ready.