The language of the prophets can at times be quite enigmatic. It is often difficult to decipher just exactly what is being communicated or what the imagery being described is meant to symbolize. Such is the case with a peculiar passage in Zechariah chapter 1 about four craftsman:
[a] Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, there were four horns. So I said to the angel who was speaking with 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 1:18-21 / a. Ch 2:1 in Hebrew.)
This passage is in the context of the Messianic Era and is describing agents who bring about the ingathering of the exiles of the Jewish people back to the land of Israel and in turn bring the redemption. For our purposes we will skip over the line about the “the horns that scattered Judah” and instead focus on “these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”
Who are these four craftsman? Whoever they are, all four play a major role in ushering in the Messianic Kingdom and the final redemption. Fortunately, the Talmud has a long-standing tradition about their identity:
And the Lord showed me four craftsmen. Who are these ”four craftsmen”? — R. Hana b. Bizna citing R. Simeon Hasida replied: “The Messiah the son of David, the Messiah the son of Joseph, Elijah and the Righteous Priest. (b.Sukkah 52b)
So the “four craftsmen” are Messiah son of David, and son of Joseph, Elijah the prophet, and the Righteous Priest. This raises some more questions. Why are these four called craftsmen? Who is the Righteous Priest?
Messiah son of David and Messiah son of Joseph
Obviously the Messiah will play the most central role in gathering the exiles of Israel and bringing redemption. As followers of Messiah Yeshua we believe that he fulfilled the role of Messiah son of Joseph (the suffering servant) in his first coming and will return in the role of Messiah son of David (King Messiah) in his second coming. The Messiah is called a craftsman because he will rebuild the Temple (Jeremiah 33:18).
Elijah the Prophet
Next we have the Prophet Elijah. Elijah is the herald of Messiah and the final redemption. When Messiah Yeshua came the first time he appeared in the spirit of John the Baptist and Elijah will again return to announce Messiah’s second coming. How is he a craftsman? The sages point out that he built the altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30-32).
The Righteous Priest
Lastly we have the mysterious “Righteous Priest.” Jewish tradition identifies him with Melchizedek based upon Genesis 14:18: “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek appeared upon Abraham’s return from his victory over the four kings, which, according to the Ramban, alludes to the ultimate victory of the Jewish people over the four nations that oppress them (Ramban to Genesis 14:1). In that way just as the Messiah and Elijah play a role in the final redemption, so will Melchizedek.
Jewish tradition further identifies Melchizedek with Shem the son of Noah. (How this compares to what the book of Hebrews says about Melchizedek we will leave for another time). Why is Shem then called a “craftsman”? Because he helped his father Noah build the ark. The sages cite Isaiah 41:7: “The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith” as an allusion to when Melchizedek (Shem) met Abraham:
This alludes to Shem, who made the Ark; “The refiner,” this is Abraham, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, refined [tried] in the fiery furnace. “He who smooths with the hammer, him who strikes the anvil [pa’am, פעם]” (Isaiah 41:7): he smoothed with the hammer and beat all mankind into one path [pa’am], [i.e., he directed all to the fear of God.] Saying of the join: “It is good” (ibid.): This refers to the nations of the world, who said: “It is better to be joined to the God of Abraham than to the idol of Nimrod.” “They strengthened it with nails” (ibid.): Abraham strengthened Shem in religious acts and pious deeds; “so that he cannot be moved” (ibid.): viz. Abraham. (Genesis Rabbah 44:7)
Identifying Melchizedek with Shem in Jewish tradition creates the quintessential Gentile. The “righteous priest” then is the best example of a righteous Gentile monotheist. If we return to our passage above from the Talmud this means that in the view of the rabbis the righteous of the nations, along with the Messiah and Elijah, will play a crucial role in bringing the final redemption. This is reminiscent of the book of Acts, where the James and the Jerusalem Council realized that the acceptance of Gentiles from among the nations as disciples of Yeshua meant that fallen “Tent of David,” the kingdom of heaven was at hand. When salvation and the knowledge of God is spread to all the nations of the earth, the final redemption is close. These righteous Gentiles will join in with Messiah and Elijah to help “cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it” (Zechariah 1:21) and in turn help usher in the final redemption.