By Bible Studies Online, Oct 2 2015 10:03PM
Taken from 'Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah' by Mathew Bartlett (Available from our bookshop £9.99)
The Day of the Lord
14:1–2 A day of the LORD is about to come when your possessions will be divided as plunder in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to wage war; the city will be taken, its houses plundered, and the women raped. Then half of the city will go into exile, but the remainder of the people will not be taken away.
The day spoken of by Zechariah is a day for the Lord to take action against the nations who oppose Jerusalem. If ‘the nations’ are seen as the godless of the world, then perhaps Jerusalem is depicted as the only place left on earth being tenaciously faithful to God at a time when all others abandon him (see Ps. 2:1–3). This should always have been the case, but it had not been so in the past, which is why they had been carried into exile.
Zechariah’s prophecy urges faithfulness in all situations—for even if all nations opposed them, God is the one in whom they must trust.
It may seem strange that a message addressed to those who had just returned from exile after the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar years earlier should speak of another day when such horrors would be witnessed again. What questions might have arisen in the listeners’ minds? Would this happen in their day (the prophet says ‘about to come’) or at a later time? Was the prophet referring back to an earlier prophecy concerning what had happened under Nebuchadnezzar? Looking back from our modern perspective, are we to understand this prophecy as being fulfilled in the time of the Babylonian invasion, or the Roman destruction of the city, or some other time?
The vital clue which Zechariah gives in answer to these questions is that ‘all nations’ will be gathered to make war on Jerusalem. Such a universal assault on the holy city has never occurred in history—it is unprecedented. Indeed, never before have ‘all nations’ gathered against any one country, let alone a single city. What would make the nations of the world consider it necessary to deploy all their combined military might against Jerusalem?
The nature of apocalyptic writings and the meaning of the genre remains a hot topic among scholars. Should such writings be taken symbolically or literally? And if literally, have the visions already been fulfilled, or is their realisation yet to come? These questions are extremely significant in Zechariah 14, which is notoriously difficult to exegete. Personally, I wish both to discuss the rich metaphors which such visions contain (how they relate to God’s nature and his purposes for his people) and also (cautiously ) discuss those aspects of the text which appear to require a literal interpretation. After all, when Daniel saw a vision of four beasts emerging out of the sea, it is clear that he did not envisage a time in the future when awful monsters would rise out of the Mediterranean to destroy the earth! Nevertheless, in years to come, four world powers did arise, just as Daniel predicted; powers which were aptly described by the powerful descriptive metaphors Daniel had employed in his vision.
So then, let us briefly discuss how and when elements of Zechariah’s prophecy (14:1-2) might expect a literal fulfilment. The only other passage in scripture where all nations are described as gathering for battle near Jerusalem is in the book of Revelation, so that might be a good place to start. In Revelation 16:14–16 all nations gather to the plains of Megiddo for what is popularly called ‘the battle of Armageddon’; and in Revelation 19:19 these same armies are depicted as opposing Jesus Christ at the time of his return. Hence in Revelation a reason is proposed for the unity of the nations: they are united by their opposition to Christ and by their seeming awareness that his return to earth is imminent. By comparing the two passages it may reasonably be proposed that Zechariah’s prophecy relates to the same period as John’s; albeit that it offers a different perspective. If this is so then Zechariah provides important details about this ‘end time’ conflict which are absent from John’s vision. The initial assault of the world’s anti-God forces against the city of Jerusalem will be successful, with plunder, rape and exile of many Jews; a statement which ostensibly correlates with Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:21–22.
14:3 Then the LORD will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days.
Whether or not the reader chooses to search for a literal fulfilment of the prophecy, one thing is certain. The reason Zechariah speaks of the trouble of the last days is to introduce his grand theme: the final triumphant appearance of the Lord who brings salvation and vindicates his people. Just as in ancient times—the days when God brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land—so God would work in power and glory to redeem his own. Faced with all the problems of their post-exilic period, the Jews could trust in God; for as in the days of Moses they were to again stand still and see the Lord’s salvation.
The Apocalyptic vision of God’s final triumph over wickedness and the vindication of his people is the blessed hope expected by believers in every era. In days of difficulty, the reminder that good will ultimately conquer evil both sustains faith and provides an incentive for service. This was just the motivation which the returning exiles needed, and which we also need today.
Once again, an interesting correlation is found between this verse and the battle depicted in Revelation, where God’s enemies will be destroyed by the word of Christ without a shot being fired (Rev. 19:21); even as in an earlier time Daniel foresaw the forces of evil being destroyed without human hand (Dan. 2:34).
The Lord is Coming to Jerusalem
14:4–5 On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward. Then you will escape through my mountain valley, for the mountains will extend to Azal. Indeed, you will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come with all his holy ones with him.
Whether this is a reference to the feet of Christ literally standing on the Mount of Olives (as they certainly did at the time of his ascension); or whether it stands as a metaphor for God’s coming near to help his people is not clear. Actually, little can be gained from a ‘symbolic’ reading of these verses, so perhaps the literal approach will be more fruitful; although in Revelation, when the Lord Jesus Christ is seen to ride out of heaven against his enemies, nothing is said there about his landing on the Mount of Olives. The only reference is to the nearby Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1).
It appears that during the assault on Jerusalem depicted in the opening verses, an earthquake will provide a route of escape for the people of Israel, via a chasm opened through the Mount of Olives. When the Book of Revelation speaks of Jewish suffering at the time of the end, it says ‘the earth helped the woman (Israel)’ by swallowing an evil ‘flood’ of persecution (Rev. 12:16). If this passage of Zechariah relates to that same time, then this earthquake provides the means of escape for the remnant of Israel from the wrath of the antichrist and his confederates. As Zechariah and John both indicate, it will be at this time that Christ will appear in the clouds, followed by the armies of heaven, a throng which includes both saints and angels (Rev. 19:11–16; Matt. 16:27).
If we were to examine the powerful metaphors within the verses, then we might see that no matter how desperate the situation, or how dark the night of trouble or persecution (v. 6), God will always come to the aid of his people. The years of exile had been like a dark night for the nation, but God would now arise for their deliverance. For the Christian believer, however, it is impossible to separate the idea of God’s final intervention in human affairs from the personal and glorious return of Jesus.
14:6 On that day there will be no light — the sources of light in the heavens will congeal.
As with all apocalyptic writings, even when the events convey a literal meaning, one cannot precisely say whether the events in the vision are concurrent, consecutive, or separated by considerable time. To state the matter simply, if the darkness is literal, when does it take place?
Darkness is a recurring theme in the Bible. In Genesis, it is the state of the world without God’s creative activity; for Paul, it represented the state of the human soul without new creation in Christ; and in the Book of Revelation, darkness indicates the coming judgment of God on the earth (Rev. 6:12; 8:12; 9:2) as the necessary prelude to his creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Hence if the darkness of verse six accompanies the coming of ‘the LORD my God’ to fight against the nations then the picture is one of a dreadful twilight in which God metes out retribution on his enemies.
What is more, that darkness can be seen as indicative both of judgment and as the precursor to new creation is evident from the time when Christ hung on the cross, and the midday sun was turned into midnight darkness which covered the face of the whole earth; Jesus at that time bearing the judgment for sin in order to bring eternal life to humanity.
14:7 It will happen in one day (a day known to the LORD); not in the day or the night, but in the evening there will be light.
If in the previous verse, light became darkness for God’s enemies, yet in this verse night becomes day for God’s people. As when God brought Israel out of Egypt and provided a pillar of fire by night to light their way, so this light represents the immediate presence of God who descends to act on behalf of his people. Whenever God’s people face any kind of trouble, God will be their light and they will never walk in darkness. Eventually, of course, when the sun, moon and stars pass away (Rev. 6:12–14) there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1) where the Lord will be the only light his people need forever.
14:8–10 Moreover, on that day living waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it will happen both in summer and in winter. The LORD will then be king over all the earth. In that day the LORD will be seen as one with a single name. All the land will change and become like the Arabah from Geba to Rimmon, south of Jerusalem; and Jerusalem will be raised up and will stay in its own place from the Benjamin Gate to the site of the First Gate and on to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the royal winepresses.
In these verses the symbolic nature of the prophecy is predominant; although one ought not to suppose that some kind of literal fulfilment is entirely ruled out. The overall picture of Zechariah’s vision is one of God coming to act on behalf of his people against their enemies; and so great is this action that it is described in terms of the movement of the land itself and the changing of the geographical features of a large area around Jerusalem.
With the great earthquake, and the splitting of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem is raised to a higher altitude above sea level and an underground spring will be released, flowing both east towards the Dead Sea and west toward the Mediterranean. In Ezekiel 47:1–12 we find a similar vision in which the living water brought life and abundant blessing wherever it went, even turning the waters of the Dead Sea fresh so that fish could live there.
The living water flowing from Jerusalem was seen by Jesus as a prophecy concerning the outpouring of the Spirit, which began in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and through which rivers of living water now flow into the hearts of those who believe. The Spirit of God has come to stay, his presence being an abiding taste of future glory, unaffected by seasons or circumstances. However, it was not the Mount of Olives that was riven to set this spring in motion, but Christ himself who was stricken on the cross so that living water might flow from him to all people (to east and west).
The reformers would have seen verses 8–9 as a reference to the word of the Lord going forth from Jerusalem to all nations, bringing men and women under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. ‘The LORD will then be king over all the earth. In that day the LORD will be seen as one with a single name.’ Jesus entered into death for every person, but God has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, so that all might bow before him. Jesus has been revealed as the single focal point of worship for men and angels and God has commanded all to bow their knee to him (Heb. 1:6; Phil. 2:9–11).
The place of worship being lifted up (v 10) may also be indicative of this new focal point of worship. Christ becomes of paramount importance, the focus of every area of life. Whatever Christians may do each day, everything is done as unto the Lord; whilst in heaven the Lamb is at the centre of all worship (Rev. 5:8–13).
14:11 And men shall dwell therein, and there shall be no more curse; but Jerusalem shall dwell safely. (RV)
I have chosen the RV as it expresses the thought that there shall be ‘no more curse’ (as in Rev. 22:3). The redemption which Christ has provided by his death on the cross encompasses the whole of creation (see Rom. 8:21 and Col. 1:20) so that even during his thousand year reign on earth the curse will have been removed; and in the new heaven and earth it will find no place (Rev. 22:3).
God’s Enemies Defeated
14:12–15 But this will be the nature of the plague with which the LORD will strike all the nations that have fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will decay while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot away in their sockets, and their tongues will dissolve in their mouths. On that day there will be great confusion from the LORD among them; they will seize each other and attack one another violently. Moreover, Judah will fight at Jerusalem, and the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be gathered up — gold, silver, and clothing in great abundance. This is the kind of plague that will devastate horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and all the other animals in those camps.
The realisation that ultimately all of God’s enemies will be defeated would have encouraged the defenceless exiles to trust in God for their protection. Once again, if viewed literally, the detail of the prophecy lends itself to the depiction of the battle of Megiddo (Armageddon); since although the manner of the death of the armies that gather at Megiddo to fight against the Lord and his people is not specified in Revelation, it is clearly violent, since the blood of the armies will flow to a depth of at least 1.22 metres for 300 kilometres (Rev. 14:19–20; the width is not specified). Whether or not such figures are accurate, the slaughter is immense (possibly in excess of 100 million persons). Its description calls to my mind eyewitness accounts which I have heard from the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, who saw blood and dead bodies flowing in the river only minutes after the bomb was dropped.
Probably this verse is what inspired the creators of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ to depict the enemies of God physically melting away, as if caught in the radiation flash of a nuclear explosion. Yet nuclear power is not the cause of death; instead it is the word of Christ (Rev. 19:21). The soldiers’ fighting between themselves indicates panic, a futile attempt to get away from the looming judgment. Not only the people but their animals will be destroyed in this manner, and anything of value that remains will become the spoil of war, the property of Israel.
The Feast of Tabernacles
14:16 Then all who survive from all the nations that came to attack Jerusalem will go up annually to worship the King, the LORD who rules over all, and to observe the Feast of Tabernacles.
Without explanation, the prophet announces that there will be survivors of this cataclysmic event, and that they shall come (probably by compunction) to pay homage to the Lord. The observation of the Feast of Tabernacles usually lasted one week, but Zechariah may have the perpetual fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles in view. The feast was essentially a thanksgiving for the full harvest, a time of abundance and blessing; and such blessing will become continuous when God comes to dwell among his people (a time defined by many Christians as the Millennium period, where Jesus rules over the earth for one thousand years—Rev. 20:4).
14:17–19 But if any of the nations anywhere on earth refuse to go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD who rules over all, they will get no rain. If the Egyptians will not do so, they will get no rain — instead there will be the kind of plague which the LORD inflicts on any nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and of all nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
It is not so much the refusal to attend a feast as the refusal to submit to the Lord that results in punishment; since, during the millennial reign of Christ, he rules with a rod of iron, and enforces the submission of all peoples. Overall the picture is of all nations being compelled to worship the Lord, an image similar to that presented by Paul in Philippians 2:9–11 and 1 Corinthians 15:25–28.
Hence the idea of non-compliance would seem out of place; and the idea of a drought does not fit well with the usual picture of the Millennium: that of reversion to an almost Eden-like state. Likewise, a problem arises since Egypt does not (at present) depend on rain for water; it has the Nile.
Nevertheless the Book of Revelation admits that rebellion will follow the thousand-year reign of Christ. The nations will reveal their true nature as they rebel against the Lord; bringing about their own destruction and the inauguration of the final judgement (Rev. 20:7–15).
14:20–21 On that day the bells of the horses will bear the inscription "HOLY TO THE LORD." The cooking pots in the LORD's temple will be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. Every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah will become holy in the sight of the LORD who rules over all, so that all who offer sacrifices may come and use some of them to boil their sacrifices in them. On that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD who rules over all.
The ultimate fulfilment of all eschatological hope is that humankind will dwell in the immediate presence of God, in the restoration of the Eden-type relationship where God walked and talked with people. This hope, for the Christian, is bound up in the person of Christ (Titus 2:13). The sanctification of the articles for temple worship symbolised only a shadow of the reality to come. In the immediate presence of God, everything is hallowed. Even now, since Jesus Christ has been made for us sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30) every word of fellowship, every act of service and every menial task is made holy through Christ. It is his presence that makes them holy; just as God’s presence in the bush made the ground beneath Moses’ feet holy.
The Canaanite was considered unclean and was not to be admitted to the congregation of the Lord’s people. The absence of such people indicates that no one is excluded from the presence of God. All may enter, for the new creation removes all boundaries of race and gender. Just as ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28) , so there are no more Canaanites. They have been made holy through Christ; transformed by new creation.
Discussion Questions for Chapter 14
1. vv. 1–15. In what ways might Zechariah’s depiction of God’s ultimate victory over all his enemies encourage the returning exiles? In what ways might it comfort God’s people today?
2. vv. 4–11. In what ways do you see Zechariah’s prophecy as a reference to the second coming of Jesus?
3. vv. 16–21. In what ways might we understand the picture of all nations gathering to worship God to be fulfilled through Jesus?