This morning I saw a couple of pictures of the ship I served aboard in the 1970’s: The U.S.S. Bagley, DE-1069. This triggered many different memories. I was a U.S. Navy Signalman. In the Navy, the signalman’s role combined visual communications and lookout skills. We had three primary means of signaling: flags we hoisted, semaphore and flashing light. They each served a unique purpose. Because we waved flags using semaphore, signalmen were often nicknamed “Skivvy wavers.” That was a funny way of saying we were waving underpants.
Signalmen were responsible for transmitting, receiving, encoding, decoding, and distributing messages from the captain or the officer on the bridge. Messages were obtained via the visual transmission systems of flag semaphore, visual Morse code, and hoisting specific alpha/numeric flags as signals. I did all three.
The Signalman Insignia
A signalman could be identified by the symbol of two crossed semaphore flags on the left sleeve of the uniform, integrated with their rank insignia. This patch was on my uniform just before I was discharged from the Navy. It proclaimed to other sailors that I was rank E-5 (petty officer 2nd class had two chevrons) and a signalman.
Signal Flags to Hoist
The flags we hoisted could be understood internationally by any ship. For example, the red flag “B” or “bravo” alerted all ships of the movement of dangerous cargo: for example, a refueling from one ship to another. It might also mean we were loading or unloading weapons and ammunition. When we were underway, we would fly NULQ. Those letters could be looked up in a code book to identify us as the USS Bagley.
Semaphore was a more close-range way to send a message from one ship to another ship in the fleet. But you had to be within close visual range during daylight hours to be able to read the flags. The position of the flags communicated individual letters. Semaphore, from the Greek, means “bearing signs.”
Morse Code with Flashing Light
The third mechanism was Morse code, transmitted with a flashing light. This could be done during the day or at night. However, this was something that could be seen by all ships in the direction of the light. That might be risky during time of war.
All of these remind me of another set of signals. They are the signals that God has sent and is sending for those who are on watch and alert to his messages. This is very apparent in the minor prophet, Zechariah. Images (signals) are used to convey messages of great importance for those who take the time to decode them.
A Walk Through Zechariah’s Prophetic Signals
If you study the Old Testament Scriptures, there is a common thread woven through them. There are signs and signals. Jesus stated, on more than one occasion, that what was happening during his life was fulfillment of prophecy in the scriptures. The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from him. It says this in Matthew 12:38-40: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” What was the sign of Jonah? Verse 40 says, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Many Signs in Zechariah
In Zechariah’s prophecy, the Lord speaks through Zechariah and starts by saying, “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.” (Zech. 1:2). In verse three he calls them to “return to me and I will return to you.” There are many interesting images in this prophecy. Chapter 2 talks about a man with a measuring line. Chapter three talks about the high priest, Joshua dressed in filthy clothes and about the Branch that would “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” The branch is Jesus, who is the Vine.
Chapter four goes on to talk about a gold lampstand and two olive trees. Chapter five has a flying scroll and a woman in a basket. Chapter six has four chariots and a crown for Joshua. The seventh chapter talks about feasting and fasting in ways that God did not regard. Rather the Lord says “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” In other words, our religion should be revealed in the way we treat others. We signal our regard for God by how we treat fellow image-bearers. We cannot and do not measure up.
The Donkey Sign
Some signs are more obvious. Chapter eight talks of many different nations and the entire world. God declares that Israel will be a blessing for all nations. This is an echo of the promises God gave Abraham and David. Chapter nine gives us a magnificent, now fulfilled prophecy that includes the image of the donkey: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is the promised Messiah, Savior, and King Jesus.
God the Signalman
In chapter ten, God becomes a Signalman for his people. “I will signal for them and gather them in. Surely I will redeem them; they will be as numerous as before.” Chapter eleven talks about two shepherds and it is also the prophecy about the thirty pieces of silver and throwing that silver to the potter of the house of the Lord. Chapter twelve has the heart-wrenching prophecy, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” Chapter thirteen talks about the shepherd being struck and the sheep scattered. Chapter fourteen proclaims, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth.”
Ignore the Signals at Your Peril
To ignore the flashing light from the flagship, the ship of the admiral, would have been regarded as insubordination or dereliction and abandonment of duty. It would be terrible to be the signalman on watch and not catch the message or respond to it.
In the same way, to ignore the signals from God is great folly. Don’t miss the Light of the World who wants you to have resurrection and life. He is the Branch, the Shepherd, the King, and the only Savior. Don’t miss the signals.