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The Army of Artisans by Christ Otto

Five hundred years ago Europe was awakening from about 1000 years of cultural slumber that we call the Dark Ages. Two events caused this: the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. These movements were the recovery of classical Western art and philosophy along with an attempted return to classical Christianity. They spawned a movement of growth and increase that lasted until the First World War.

A decline began around that period. It was hastened by the interwar period and cemented by the end of World War II. What happened in that period was the organized rejection of both classical Western thought and traditional Christianity. Although the decline was slower in America, the 60’s generation has succeeded in allowing us to join Europe in the slow death march to a new dark age. So how do we turn the tide, light a candle, and lead others away from an inevitable period of poverty, sickness, division, and ignorance? I believe our only hope is beauty.

The war we fight is a war of ideas. It is a war of competing stories. In our age we have watched truth and goodness be redefined. All we have left is beauty–a representation of the “Other” of heaven that can be heard with our ears, seen with our eyes, and touched with our hands. I believe scripture gives us a roadmap for the present day.

Zechariah chapter one ends with a vision of four horns that rise up in the earth to terrorize Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.  The prophet notices four smiths in verse 20. He asks the angel who is with him what they are called to do and he replied, “…to throw into panic, to hew down the horns of the nations that raise a horn against Judah to toss it.”

The Hebrew here is difficult and even in most English translations the sentence is hard to understand. I came upon this in my morning readings and out of curiosity hit the books to grasp the meaning. Most translation notes say the word smith was chosen out of the context of the sentence, but the context is not clear. We are not sure what the smiths are doing, other than striking terror into the horns that rise against Israel.

My curiosity increased and I then went to the Hebrew to find the word translated smith. Young’s Literal Translation translates the word artisan. Others translate it carpenters, engravers, and craftsmen. Often the word makes direct reference to stone cutting and jewel work.

The root word is charash and it appears 35 times in the Hebrew Bible. In all but two passages, the New Revised Standard Version translates it as artisan. The other time outside of Zechariah 1:20 is in Isaiah 41:12 where the prophet clearly is describing a blacksmith so it is translated blacksmith. As I studied the use of the word in the scripture, a clear picture began to emerge of how this word was used in other places. Especially important was the Torah use.

The first use of this word is in reference to the two men who were anointed to build the Tabernacle, Oholiab and Bezalel. The first description of someone being filled with the Holy Spirit appears in Exodus 31:3. This is the only place in the Old Testament where that term is used. The men are described as charashim, artisans in Exodus 35:35. They are skilled in every kind of craft, from woodworking to weaving to jewelry making and metal work. We would call them Renaissance men. Their work looks like the workshop of a master from the Renaissance period with jewels, tapestries, furniture, and costume all being fashioned under their leadership.

I would argue that these two men were the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. Under Moses’ direction, they may have had encounters with the heavenly realm and they must have heard descriptions of heaven from Moses. They depended on the Holy Spirit to make Moses’ “courtyard of heaven” experience visible to the rest of Israel. Not only did their work become the access point for the people to meet with God, it became the center of the holy imagination of the Jewish mind. They created the ark, the menorah, the cherubim, and blueprint for the temple. These elements, and their design, are still fixed in the Jewish imagination.

We do not meet another person “filled with the Spirit” until we encounter Mary. From this we can draw a clear line between the artist and the Incarnation. The artisan puts flesh on the work of the Spirit and makes that reality visible for others to experience.

Throughout scripture (except in Isaiah 41:12) the word charashim carries this understood meaning. The artisan is a renaissance person, able to do many things and create things of beauty. In both Kings and Chronicles, this term is used to describe the men sent by Hiram to build the Temple (I Chronicles 14:1). These artisans do all kinds of work, just like Oholiab and Bezalel–carving, carpentry, stone cutting,  weaving, jewel work, gold and silver smithing, and design. The charashim are the artisan/craftsmen called to all kinds of workmanship.

Before looking at another important use of charashim in scripture, we should take a brief look at the contrast created in Exodus 32 between the artisan and the idol maker. God told Moses in Exodus 31 that he called Oholiab and Bezalel to create the Tabernacle. He was given a long description of what they were gifted to do. Immediately after, the LORD commanded Moses concerning the importance of the Sabbath and he wrote the two stone tablets of the Covenant.

We should note two things in the context of this chapter. The calling of the artist is immediately followed by the extensive command to Shabbat. Beauty and rest walk together. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Shabbat is a monument in time to the character and nature of God.”

The next thing that happens is YHWH himself engraves the tablets of the Law. This is the first hint we have of a direct link between the artisan and God. We will see this more clearly at another place in scripture.

Meanwhile, because Moses has taken so long, Aaron pacifies the people by giving them a golden calf. It is an idol that he casts and they worship before it just as the pagans. In these two chapters we begin to see the tension throughout scripture between the idol and the icon. An idol becomes a visual obstacle to God, a diversion from true faithfulness and a vehicle for immoral behavior. In the case of the golden calf we see drunkenness and debauchery as a result of their idolatry.

By contrast, the icon Oholiab and Bezalel created was a vehicle for engaging God and also a means to live a life of holiness. Surprisingly, they were asked to create a number of things that might at first seem forbidden–cherubim, doves, oxen, almond trees, and palm trees. These visual elements were intended to convey a reality beyond this earth using earthly imagery. Although there would always be an iconoclastic vein in Judeo-Christian tradition, it is clear that these images were a core part of the covenant with Moses.

To finally get a full understanding of the artisan and what it might mean in Zechariah 1:20, we should look at a “throw-away” line from the genealogy in I Chronicles 4:14: “Meonothai became the father of Ophrah; and Seraiah became the father of Joab father of Ge-harashim, so-called because they were artisans.”

Here we see the word transliterated right in the translation, and we see that the name was given because Joab’s descendants were artisans. In the footnote, Ge-Harashim is translated Valley of the Artisans. This verse is key because it shows that later usage of the word charashim was artisan, and this use was common at the time of Zechariah. We will come back to this verse when we look at how this word translated into the New Testament Greek.

We see four horns in Zechariah 1:18-21. The number four often represents the created order, or the earthly realm. Horns often represent government or military power. To make a leap using New Testament language, I believe we are seeing the world’s powers rising up against Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem and by extension, those who have been grafted into the covenant with them.

In response to the world power against God’s people there arises another four–four artisans. The image here is an army, an army of artists. What do these artisans do? They terrify the enemies of God and this terror renders these world powers until they are struck down. What terrifies the enemies of God? A clear, brilliant representation of who God is and what heaven is like. There is no argument against beauty. Zechariah is seeing an end time army of renaissance men and women.

As I mentioned, I Chronicles 4:14 gives us a bridge to the New Testament. The New Testament writers used the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) as their Bible. The word used to translate charasim in Greek is technitais. You probably see the root of the English word technology or technician in that word. It is only used four times in the New Testament.

In Acts 19 we see Paul running into trouble when the silversmiths–the idol makers–in Ephesus cause a riot. These men are described as technitais. We also see artists and craftsmen in Revelation 18 listed among those who are judged in the final destruction of Babylon. These aren’t exactly God’s end time warrior artists, but idolaters. Once again there is the contrast between the artisan and the idolater.

Surprisingly, there is a final artisan mentioned in scripture.  We are shown the source of Abraham’s faith in Hebrews 11:10: “For he looked forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

The word builder in our English Bible is the root word technitais. God is the artisan. He is the designer and the master craftsman of the New Jerusalem and his final work is the creation of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. Isn’t it fitting that he would be preparing an army of artisans, expressing this unique aspect of his personality, to begin making a way for the consummation of all things? God is bringing all things into order and he is raising up an army to do it.

Earlier I mentioned that the charashim often are described as ones who work in precious stones. It is not surprising then that Revelation 21 gives great detail about the giant precious stones used in the city–jasper, sapphire, emerald, agate, pearls, onyx, carnelian, and on and on. Not to mention all the gold. Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us, has been working as an artisan. He is working as an artisan and he is raising up the artisan. Those who seem to have no value to the world system are now being called as the end time secret weapon. That was the plan all the time, to astound the world with the sounds, sights, and smells of heaven. In the midst of great darkness, a new and glorious light will shine.

I guess it is no surprise that in places where radical Islam is taking hold the arts are being made illegal. Islam has long forbidden artwork but now there is an increasing intolerance to great monuments of the past, to all forms of music, and to any visual art. They are afraid of beauty because beauty will lead us to the one who is beautiful.

It is not a stretch to see that the artists will strike terror in those who terrorize Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem. This is the moment for the artist to arise. This is the moment for the artist to make a way. This is the moment for the artist to be the sermon. Maybe this is the moment Paul spoke of in Romans 8: “All of creation is longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” This is the day to be revealed and declare the glory of God.

So to summarize:

• Zechariah 1:20 describes four powers rising up against God’s people. In response, God raises up four smiths that strike terror in these powers and overcome them.
• The word translated smith in Zechariah 1:20 is usually translated artisan and is used to describe the artists who built the Tabernacle under Moses–Bezalel and Oholiab.
• Exodus 31 links the call of the artisan to the establishment of Shabbat and also sees God engrave the tablets of stone. This is contrasted with Exodus 32 when Aaron creates the golden calf. There is always a tension in scripture between the idol and icon.
• I Chronicles 4:14 shows us that artisan was the common understanding of charashim at the time of Zechariah and also forms a bridge to the translation and use of the word in the Greek Septuagint and the New Testament word technitais.
• God is described as the artisan (technitais) in Hebrews 11 and this reference is echoed in Revelation 19. Here, heavy emphasis is placed on the jewels in the construction of the city and jewel work and engraving is one of the special meanings of artisan throughout scripture.
• We can conclude that Zechariah 1:20 is referencing a new order of artisans that God will raise up at the end time battle of Jerusalem. This order is designed to strike fear in the enemies of Israel and they represent a unique and intrinsic part of the character of God. Like Oholiab and Bezalel, they are called to make heaven visible. They are forerunners of the Holy City that God, the master artisan is building.

Christ (rhymes with “wrist”) Otto is the director of Belonging House, a prayer-based creative community forming in Salem, Massachusetts.  Christ lives by faith and has devoted himself to ministry to the Lord in prayer, to raising up an army of artists, and to re-establish the tabernacle of David in the earth.  He is a gifted artist and worship leader who is most often seen at conferences and churches in the Greater Boston area.