Zechariah and his contemporaries are trying to rebuild their lives after seventy years of exile. Back in the Promised Land, the Jewish community faces innumerable obstacles to actually accomplishing anything of significance. Then God sends another vision to Zechariah. After Zechariah sees a vision at night of horses in a valley (1:7-17), God gives him a vision of four horns and four blacksmiths (1:18-21).
 Then I looked up and saw four animal horns.  “What are these?” I asked the angel who was talking with me. He replied, “These horns represent the nations that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.”  Then the Lord showed me four blacksmiths.  “What are these men coming to do?” I asked. The angel replied, “These four horns—these nations—scattered and humbled Judah. Now these blacksmiths have come to terrify those nations and throw them down and destroy them.”
I think that the New Living Translation gets it right when it identifies the horns as “four animal horns.” But four animal horns are typically associated with the altar of sacrifice. (See the picture on the left). In addition, if these animal horns were just free-floating horns, why would God send blacksmiths to deal with them instead of someone likes farmers or sheepherders? The answer is that Zechariah saw an altar with four horns.
What do the horns represent? The angel gives the answer: “These horns represent the nations that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (1:19). I don’t think that the horns represent four specific nations, but rather the totality of nations. The Bible talks about the “four corners of the earth” and the “four winds.” I don’t think that even the biblical writers believed the world was flat. So they used expressions like that to express “completeness” or “totality.”
So Zechariah sees an altar with four horns. Then he sees four blacksmiths. The purpose of the blacksmiths is to “terrify those nations and throw them down and destroy them” (1:21). In the vision, the blacksmiths are coming to dismantle the altar. The dismantling of the altar represents judgment rendered on the nations, which exiled Israel, by other nations. Namely, it is a vision which shows Babylon and Assyria primarily being judged for the exile by Persia.
The question is “why?” Why would God give Zechariah this vision and why is this vision placed at this point in the book? Remember, this vision primarily has to do with the past: the judgment rendered on Babylon and Assyria by the Persians. But I think that God is using the past to encourage Zechariah’s future. In other words, God is saying: “Look at how I worked in the past by judging Israel’s oppressors! My plan is rolling forward. Like Miley Cyrus, it can’t stop, it won’t stop.”
I also think that the vision of the four horns functions like a hinge between 1:12-17 and 2:1-5. In both of those sections, Lord promises restoration for His people. Specifically, Jerusalem would be restored with an overflowing prosperity and populace (1:17; 2:4). But how does Jerusalem’s restoration come about? Through the judgment of the pagan nations, which is symbolized by the vision of the four horns! The vision of the four horns depicts God’s past judgment on the pagan judgments which is a pledge of God’s future judgment and subsequent restoration of His people.
What About Me?
So how does this intersect with your life? The passage focuses on God’s judgment and His sovereignty. It stirs in me a longing for the world to be made right. Evil will not get its way forever. God will work on behalf of His people—those who are “in Christ”—and judge His enemies. But also, I know that the decisive victory was won on the cross as Christ “disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross” (Col. 2:15). So I can rest easy today because I know that my future is secure. Although I may suffer physically, my spiritual life is secure. And a physical existence beyond comprehension awaits me at the resurrection on the Last Day.