Horses and Chariots

After horse ancestors left Noah’s Ark, those that gave rise to the modern Equus caballus appear to have headed to Asia. There they were domesticated and used for meat, milk, and transportation. The Hyksos are credited with bringing the horse to Egypt. We can read between the lines of Scripture to speculate a date for that introduction. When Pharaoh gave Abraham gifts of Egyptian animals (Genesis 12) approximately 1920 B.C., the horse is not mentioned; however, as an Egyptian ruler Joseph rode in a horse-drawn chariot (Genesis 41) approximately 1715 B.C. In modern terms, Joseph had government- provided-and-escorted limousine service.

In Scripture, horses are frequently associated with war. The strength, speed, and aggressiveness of charging horses was terrifying (Habakkuk 1:8, Jeremiah 8:16). In Bible times the horse-drawn chariot was the ultimate war machine. Generally there were two charioteers, one guided the charging horse while the other wielded the weapons. Victory was based on which army could field more or better chariots. Wooden chariots were easier to destroy; iron chariots were heaver and slower but following an accident they could be righted and serve again.

Horse-drawn chariots made Egypt the superpower of the day. Not only did Egyptians win battles, they were also arms dealers. Selling horses and chariots filled Pharaoh’s coffers. But chariots and horses were no match for God. When Pharaoh sent his army to bring the Israelites back into captivity, the dry land on which His people had crossed the Red Sea became the watery grave of Egyptian soldiers, chariots, and horses.

Horses and Chariots in Cana

Although there is no Scriptural statement regarding the Israelites bringing horses into the Promised Land, there are statements regarding Israel using horses and chariots in their army. In Deuteronomy 17, God states that an Israelite king is not to “multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses.” Isaiah 31:1 explains why: “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the LORD!”

If Israelites obeyed and trusted Jehovah, He would be on their side. While they had “mighty men” (competent warriors) and were to fight battles, God would be the reason for their victory. Ancient Jews won battles by marching around a city and blowing trumpets and by acts of God, like at Merom (Joshua 11:4-11) and Taanah (Judges 4:15, 5:4-22) where God again used water to defeat chariots and horses.

When Joshua defeated the Canaanite coalition with its “very many” horses and chariots, he burned the chariots and disabled the horses (Judges 11: 1-9) rather than add them to Israel’s army. When David defeated Hadadezer (2 Samuel 8:4) he disabled all but one hundred of the horses. Jeremiah, Micah, Haggai, and Ezekiel prophesied Jewish victories against horse-and-chariot equipped armies. When they trusted the Lord, Israelite forces defeated and chased larger, better- equipped armies from the battlefield.

As news of these unusual victories reached surrounding nations they realized “there is a God in Israel.” If it could be said, “Of course they win, look at all the horses and chariots they have,” God would not have that testimony among the heathen and Israel would begin to trust their military strength rather than Jehovah. The ban on horses and chariots was for good reasons.

While horses and chariots were not to be part of Israel’s army, God uses imagery of this weapon to illustrate power and strength. He speaks of horses and chariots of fire protecting His people (2 Kings 6:17). The effectiveness of the prophet’s word is likened to that of chariots and horses (2 Kings 2:11). In a dramatic exit, Elijah is carried away in a fiery chariot. Horses of different colors play in prophecies in both the Old and New Testaments.

Unclean Horses

Since horses have a single hoof on each leg and lack rumens (i.e., they do not “chew the cud”) the Jewish dietary laws label them unclean. While ancient cultures ate horsemeat (and it is consumed in some countries today), Israelites abstained. Horses could not be used in Temple sacrifices. But like the unclean donkey and camel, horses could be beasts of burden.

Scripture records Saul and David riding donkeys, but not horses. Horses were “of Egypt” and God’s ban on their military use appears to have caused Israelites to prefer the clean oxen as their primary beast of burden.

When Absalom rebelled against David his father, he assembled a huge entourage and rode through Jerusalem in a horse-drawn chariot. While flashy and exciting to some, it was “borderline apostate,” which probably raised a warning flag for the more conservative.

Absalom’s half-brother, Solomon, went beyond borderline. As King, he paid “top shekel” for massive numbers of Egyptian horses and chariots. He stabled and bred horses near the Temple in Jerusalem. He never used them in war, but did parade them about the city and the kingdom. Toward the end of his life, Solomon recognized that “All is vanity,” which aptly describes his relationship with chariots and horses.

New Testament Horses

During the Roman occupation of Palestine, chariots and horses flooded Jerusalem in impressive displays of Roman pomp and military strength. Their horses and chariots were considered an abomination, a symbol of the domination the Jews were enduring. But Zechariah had prophesied that when “thy King cometh unto thee. . . he will be riding upon an ass” and He will rid Jerusalem of chariots and horses (Zechariah 9:10-11). Knowing what the Jews were expecting, it is understandable that they would spread palm branches and their cloaks before the donkey as they shouted, “Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

The Ruler who had created all things and was about to effect the salvation of His wayward children, was not making a flashy horse-and-chariot display as He entered the earthly capital of His Kingdom. Rather than the pompous arrogance of Roman rulers, his demeanor was “meek and lowly.” He was riding a donkey not just to fulfill prophecy, but because it is the appropriate mount for the King of the Jews in Jerusalem. This was not the time to conquer Rome’s chariots and horses. This was the time for victory in a bigger battle. Jesus was entering Jerusalem to conquer sin and death—and that could only be done by the obedient Son of God.

The only other time Scripture speaks of Christ riding is in Revelation 19. Here the horse again speaks of battle. No longer called the King of the Jews, Christ is recognized as “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” He leads a white-robed army riding white horses to “smite and rule the nations.” Christ wields a sword to “judge and make war” and He rides a great white horse.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.