We began an examination of Zechariah 14 in a previous post, where we saw that there is good biblical reason to take “Jerusalem” as a reference to the new covenant church. Others are that we must surely take it to refer to the geopolitical capital of Israel. How do we decide whether to take it symbolically or literalistically?1 The options we have are a wooden literalism or a symbolic reading of this apocalyptic genre. As I said yesterday, the historical context of this apocalyptic literature gives us warrant for a symbolic reading. (For a clear biblical illustration of this, see the understanding given by Daniel of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream-vision in Daniel 2:31–45.)
With a literalistic reading, Zechariah 14 is fulfilled in the midst of a battle called Armageddon, with Jerusalem in Palestine being invaded and taken with great force and violence. Thereafter, the Lord will return to brings vengeance upon those attacking his people. After the huge clean-up (the dead of all the unsaved nations are lying there), Jesus will take the throne of David and rule in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Revelation 19 describes the event further. The Lord still has people to rule over, even though those not in Christ are destroyed. There are, of course, the elect, and somehow some surviving non-believers.
If we take the above to be an accurate interpretation of events, with the antichrist as the leader of the nations, a glaring inconsistency seems to be introduced: The antichrist will at this time also be sitting in the temple at Jerusalem “proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). Will the antichrist be outside the city attacking the antichrist within the city?
In this Revelation 19 / Zechariah 14 battle, all the nations will come against Jerusalem, which could mean the UN representing the world. The picture of this prophecy, then, is that the Lord of glory will come back to a decaying earth and govern a mixed population of glorified and unglorified people. Mixed in are a bunch of pretenders, who fake compliance with his holy will, but are secretly waiting till the thousand year period is over when they can finally openly rebel and seek to defeat the glorified, immortal saints and the all-powerful Jesus (per a premillennial reading of Revelation 20:7–9). That would be a literalistic reading.
Does a symbolic reading have any precedence or warrant in this text? If we look at some of the previous chapters, like chapter 12, it looks like a mixture of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus and also Jerusalem at the end of the New Testament age before Christ’s second coming. Notice that, on the one hand, we see all those nations destroyed who come against Jerusalem (v. 9) and, on the other, in v. 10ff, we see the LORD pour upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and of supplications: “When they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
This appears both to be the case in Acts 2:36–37 when Peter preached after Pentecost (resulting in repentance and life for the hearers), and again later–-this time with regard to the whole world—in Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” Then, however, it will result in the perdition of the ungodly.
So, chapter 12 has a mixture of Jerusalem after the Lord’s ascension and the shock of the world at his second coming. (Here we see multiple fulfilments, as with the abomination of desolation.)
Similarly, in chapter 13:1, we get a picture: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” When was this fountain opened? Is it a literal fountain or a symbolic fountain? It seems clear that it was opened when Jesus was crucified. It wasn’t an actual fountain, but figuratively pictured as one. Under the old covenant, there were sprinklings for cleansing; now, there is an overflowing fountain pouring out cleansing power. Multitudes now have access to the cleansing blood of the Saviour by faith.
Chapter 13 thus has a symbolic fountain for all believers’ cleansing and, in 13:7, we have a symbolic sword smiting the shepherd (see Matthew 26:31) and scattering the sheep.
So, the question is, could the Lord’s return for his weary suffering people in chapter 14 also have a symbolic element? If Jerusalem and Zion are meant to be understood in their New Testament reality from a heavenly perspective, we also get a broader picture. If the heavenly Jerusalem is manifest worldwide as the camp of the saints (Revelation 20:9), then we have a picture of Armageddon that is in unison with all of Scripture.
Notice the wording of Zechariah 14:2: “I will gather all the nations.” Similar words in numerous places speak about the same event (Revelation 16:3, 14, 16; 19:19, 20:7–8 [since Revelation is structured by recapitulation, it is mentioned frequently]; Isaiah 66:16, 18; Joel 3:2, 11–12, 14-16; Zephaniah 3:8). All of these appear to refer to the same event: the nations against God’s people in an event called Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) or the battle of Gog and Magog (Revelation 19:17; Ezekiel 39:1, 6, 11, 17; Revelation 20:8). Is this a local battle in Jerusalem and its vicinity or a worldwide battle before the Great Day of Judgement and the eternal state?
The New Testament teaches that the final battle is against believers worldwide. Shall we interpret the vision of the New Testament by the vision of the Old dressed in imagery taken from the residents of Jerusalem? Or will we see the Old Testament prophecies as interpreted by the events revealed in the greater light given by Christ and his apostles?
Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog attack on Israel have never been fulfilled but, in Revelation 20, we see its fulfilment in a global campaign against God’s people (compare Revelation 19:17 with Ezekiel 39:19). These are universal attempts to destroy God’s people, though in the Old Testament prophecy designations are used like “Jerusalem,” “Israel,” and “Zion” to refer to God’s people. In the Old Testament, the destruction of Judah or Jerusalem would have been the destruction of all the people of God. Speaking of the opening verses of chapter 14, H. C. Leupold writes,
Nor is this a strictly literal historic account. The fact that “the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city” allows for a substantial remnant to remain in the city of God in spite of the most bitter ravages on the part of the foe. That is always the situation in the church.
This has been recorded chiefly for the purpose of preparing for the marvelous story of the Lord’s deliverance (vv. 3–5). The Lord now “goes forth” (yatsa). The parallel statement in Micah 1:3 suggests that this going forth is from heaven itself. The reference is again not to any particular instance when an individual deliverance was wrought for his own. One scene pictures the eternal truth that the Lord is continually going forth to deliver his own when their plight seems desperate. Yet this does not exclude the thought that there will ultimately be a day of final victory at the end of time.2
At this point, God appearing on the scene is described in terms that allow for any single deliverance that he may work for the good of his own as well as for his final coming. In fact, the latter is particularly under consideration, for the next section describes conditions in the final consummation.3
G. K. Beale writes helpfully on how God gathers his enemies for this climactic battle:
The purpose of the deception [of the world’s kings by the frogs / demons of Revelations 16:14] is “to gather them together for the war of the great day of God Almighty.” The same expression occurs in chapters 19 and 20, where it refers respectively to the beast and the dragon gathering kings together to fight against Christ at his final coming:
19:19 “the kings of the earth … gathered together to make [the] war”
20:8 “the nations … of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war”
16:14 “the kings of the whole inhabited earth … to gather them together for the war”
The reference here [16:14] is probably the same as in chapters 19 and 20: the confrontation between the forces of the beast and Christ at the end of the age. These three references to the war are based on OT prophecy, especially from Zechariah 12–14 and possibly Zephaniah 3, which predict that God will gather the nations together in Israel for the final war of history.4
The place for the final battle is called “Armageddon.” But could it not be used exactly how “Babylon” and “Euphrates” has been used? It is obviously so given then genre. Armageddon is not a specific geographical location but rather the whole world.
The battles in Israel associated with Megiddo and the nearby mountain are typological symbols of the last battle against the saints and Christ which happens through the earth.
One other key indicator of the symbolic nature is how Old Testament prophecies about the final battle in history always mention it in the vicinity of Jerusalem or Mount Zion, yet the plain of Megiddo is two days’ walk north of Jerusalem.
- I am using the phrase “literalistically” on purpose as opposed to “literal.” If the meaning of something is meant to be taken symbolically, then that is the literal meaning of that text. What some hermeneutic systems do is insist on the literalistic interpretation of a text and not the literal meaning, which, in this particular genre, I take to be symbolic. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Zechariah (Michigan: Baker, 1965), 260–61. ↩
- Ibid., 263. ↩
- G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 834–35. ↩