Understanding Zechariah 14 (Part 1)

This post marks the start of a series through Zechariah 14. I hope to show a biblically faithful and hermeneutically coherent way to handle this passage over the next few days. So join me on this journey through an exciting passage.

Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.  Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.  On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

(Zechariah 14:1–5)

The second verse of this passage puts the text into a helpful perspective: God will himself gather the nations together for battle against Jerusalem. This prophecy is repeated throughout Scripture in passages like Ezekiel 38:1–23; 39:1–6; Joel 3:2; Revelation 16:12–16; 19:19; 20:8–9. But Zechariah was not merely wasting space in the pages of Holy Scripture; he had a particular perspective in his prophecy.

The nations gathered to attack Jerusalem, and it seemed that, at first, they were successful. They captured half the city, plundered the houses, raped the women, and carried away half the inhabitants. The other half of the city, though, seem to have been spared. The reason for that is that the Lord himself appeared on the scene and caught the nations in their wicked act. God came in full battle array.

When he touched the ground outside the walls of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives split to form a valley—a way of escape for the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem.

This genre of Scripture is called “apocalyptic” literature. It is not narrative, nor is it didactic text. Apocalyptic literature is symbolic literature. One only needs to read the understanding given to Daniel of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream-vision in Daniel 2:31–45: The prophecy was entirely couched in symbolic imagery. Tomorrow, I will make a post about why I believe there is good internal evidence in the immediate chapters to see this as symbolic language.

This prophecy is a message about the future people of God and foretells a time when they will be surrounded by enemies and overwhelmed by them. Zechariah uses the name “Jerusalem” because, at this time in God’s revelation, it was what the audience understood the people of God to be: Israel, the people of Jerusalem, where the temple of God was. This was an apocalyptic (symbolic) mention of Jerusalem, not a didactic or historical account.

Now, we are not free to make “Jerusalem” mean anything we want, but within the text of Scripture, as God progressively reveals himself, we are given the key to this apocalyptic use. Hebrews 13:14 reads, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” This clearly points beyond the earthly city of David. So who is in this city? Well, the New Testament church has already “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22). We do not belong to the old Sinai covenant, which “corresponds to the present Jerusalem”; we are of the new covenant, corresponding to “the Jerusalem above” who is “our mother” (Galatians 4:24–26).

James pointed to the prophecy of Amos and confirmed that God had rebuilt and restored the ruined tabernacle of David so that the Gentiles may seek the Lord and be called by his name (Acts 15:13–18). The nations were now joining themselves to Zion, the redeemed city of God, the New Testament church of Jesus Christ.

If James and the other apostles could confidently use this hermeneutic with apocalyptic texts, so can we, and so should we. This, and other prophecies like, it are realised by the heirs and successors of the Old Testament Zion, Jerusalem, and Israel. None of this means we rewrite the prophecy or promise, or that the original audience was lied to, but rather that this prophecy is satisfied in a far fuller and proper extent.

If this Jerusalem is pointing to the church, it means that the church is the future people of God who are surrounded by enemies and seemingly overwhelmed. This picture then, of an ancient city being plundered, represents the church suffering terribly at the hands of her enemies—and yet there is always a remnant left.

Verse 4 mentions the return of the Lord to rescue his people and speaks of the Mount of Olives being the place of his arrival. This ought to remind us of the words in Ezekiel. The words “his feet” suggest that this is a theophany (appearance of God). It also mentions the the mountain that is “on the east” of Jerusalem. It would be a strange way to mention the location of a well-known hill, unless it is meant to connect in our minds with Ezekiel’s vision, when the Lord’s glory left Jerusalem and stopped “on the mountain that is on the east of the city” (Ezekiel 11:23).

The Lord, whose visible presence with his people had left, now returns in power, as prophesied in Ezekiel 43:2. But it doesn’t return to some reconstructed Jerusalem; it comes to the New Jerusalem, which, as I have pointed out above, is the reality of these visions—the city that bears the name, “The LORD Is There” (Ezekiel 48:35), a city made of saints who have conquered per Revelation 3:12: “I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”

Verse 4 goes further is that it pictures the Lord making an unexpected way of escape for his people. Verse 5 pictures them using it.

Now, there are other details, like the earthquake and the valley leading to Azel. If this is symbolic, should we expect Jesus to come to a hill called the Mount of Olives? After all, if Jerusalem is just an apocalyptic reference to the New Testament church, why the emphasis on geographical markers?

It seems most likely that these descriptions about earthquakes and a palace called Azel refer to the historical details of an earthquake during the reign of Uzziah. The prophet is drawing on those past details and the incredible power of that event to create a picture of what it will be like when the Lord returns to defend his city. The warrant for this is in v. 5: “And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.” So the prophecy is drawing on historical facts to paint pictures of future realities and feelings. That historical event is called up to compare something of what the Lord’s coming will be like, yet it will shake the entire earth (cf. Haggai 2:6–7; Hebrews 12:26–27).

If, however, this chapter refers to the literal return of Christ (i.e. the second coming) upon the mount of Olives, exactly who is it that will make that escape flight to the east when the mountain is cleft? It cannot be the wicked, for the Bible plainly teaches that they will be destroyed when the Lord returns (Matthew 25:31–46; 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9). Moreover, it cannot be the righteous, for they will be “caught up … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Will the believing Jews be caught up in the air or flee through an earthquake valley? Is it unbelieving Jews that the Lord is rescuing or does he return to destroy unbelievers?

With this beautiful imagery, we must remember that the literal Mount of Olives may have a prominent role in the second coming of Christ. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus taught about the second coming while sitting on the Mount of Olives. Luke records that Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, at which time two angels declared that he would return in the same way they saw him leave (Acts 1:1–11). We have a precedent for this kind of fulfilment in that the Messiah came out of Bethlehem and Judah symbolically since it was David’s ancestral town and Jesus is David’s seed—but Jesus was also literally born in the city of Bethlehem.

A great summary of this text is found in the words of Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg:

It is very obvious that the whole account is figurative, and that the fundamental idea, the rescue of believers and the destruction of their enemies, is clothed in drapery borrowed from the local circumstances of Jerusalem.1

  1. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament, Vol. 4 (London: T. & T. Clark, 1858), 125​

Leave a Comment