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Zechariah 14:1-21

Tonight, with our sixteenth sermon, we come to the final section of Zechariah’s last prophecy. As you remember, the last three chapters of Zechariah are a single oracle or prophecy of the day of the Lord or, as Zechariah calls it so many times in these last three chapters, “that day.” We have learned that it will be a day of doom for the unbelieving peoples of the world and a day of vindication for those who have trusted the Lord. It will be a day for which God’s people will have been purified from their sins and made ready for fellowship with God. So as we begin chapter 14 we are still talking about the consummation of the kingdom of God in the future.

Text Comment

v.1       As has already been made apparent several times in these last chapters, the glorious future of the children of God “does not lie at the end of a smooth and easy pathway, but on the far side of many dangers, toils, and snares.” [Duguid, 179] These chapters and this final section of the oracle describe a time of climactic trial for the people of God. We find this same expectation in the Lord’s Olivette Discourse and in Revelation. Things are going to get very dark before the light breaks. Indeed, the Lord tells us that those days will be shortened for the sake of the elect, precisely because otherwise no one could endure them. [Matt. 24:22] Much of that trial is made necessary by the presence in the church of God of a substantial alien element. Until the end the church will be a mixture of true and false disciples. The great trial will come, as the lesser trials before it, in large part to separate the wheat from the chaff. We already read in 13:9 that God’s people would be tested for this purpose.

By the way, as we noted before, the precise nomenclature “day of the Lord” is not found in this final prophecy. Instead we have “that day,” which, to be sure, no one would mistake for anything other than the “day of the Lord.” But here we have almost the precise terminology: “a day for the Lord,” to which reference will be made seven more times in the chapter, always by referring to that day.

v.2       Remember Amos’ message to his countrymen who assumed that the day of the Lord would be a day of salvation for them. For God’s faithful people the day of the Lord would be deliverance; but for his unfaithful people it would be doom, just as it will be for the unbelieving nations. Only those who belong to the church by living faith will be saved at the end. Many who were members of the church will not be. As the Lord so solemnly and emphatically reminded us with his parables in Matthew 25 (the wise and foolish virgins; the talents; and the sheep and the goats) and in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:21-27), many suppose themselves safe who are not.

v.3       The Lord will “go out,” probably from heaven as he seems to be coming toward Jerusalem, not from it.

v.5       What is interesting about the Lord arriving from the east and over the Mount of Olives is that this reverses the direction the Lord took when he abandoned the city at the time of the Babylonian exile (Ezek. 11:23) and follows the route he took when he returned to Jerusalem afterwards as we read in (Ezek. 43:1-5). [Boda, 523] As often in biblical prophecies of the last days, the earth and the heavens themselves are shaken at the approach of the Lord. In this case a new valley will be created, dividing the Mount of Olives between its northern and southern halves so that a route east and west will have opened up for the survivors in Jerusalem to escape, as their fathers had fled the city for safety when the earthquake hit. In the middle east, especially in the ancient middle east, when there was an earthquake you got out of the city as fast as you possibly could. Construction in those days was not earthquake proof!

No one has yet identified Azal. [cf. Boda, 524] The earthquake in the days of King Uzziah was a well-known event in Israel’s past. It is also mentioned in Amos 1:1-2. Were the Bible to be written today we might mention the tsunami in southeast Asia or hurricane Katrina.

Those coming with the Lord could be his angels or they could be the saints themselves, who have left the city but return in the Lord’s train, as in Paul’s account of the Second Coming in 1Thess. 4:16-17. Actually, we read in the New Testament that the Lord will return with both a great host of angels and glorified saints. [cf. Boda, 524-525]

v.7       In other words, on that day the world will revert to the conditions that pertained at the time of the creation. And finally there will be light and only light. Verse 6 stops the creative process with the appearance of light; night does not follow. Think of Isaiah 60:19 (“The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”) or Revelation 21:22 (“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”). So this day opens out into eternal light. [Webb, 179]

Now, remember what we have learned about prophetic language. Only a wooden literalism requires us to think that what is being described here is an attack on the city of Jerusalem and an earthquake that makes a road for the Lord’s people to escape and for the Lord’s army to return in conquest. Jerusalem is, by metonymy, the people of God; the earthquake making a path through the mount is an image of the Lord’s power exercised on behalf of his people’s deliverance. Apocalyptic passages of the Bible like this one are littered with this kind of dramatic imagery and the history of interpretation has proved, one would think to anyone’s satisfaction, that the effort to provide a literal interpretation not only offends the genre in which the prophet wrote but makes for the impossible task of trying to fit all of these apocalyptic events into a single coherent chronology or scenario. As Rousas Rushdoony once remarked, apropos the effort of many to take the imagery of Revelation literally, he’d like to see the woman whose backside was resting on seven mountains! [Rev. 17:9] These are potent images, easily grasped, and no one would have taken them literally in Zechariah’s day because they were so obviously images or figures of speech.

v.8       This same image is found in Ezekiel 47, if you remember, where we read of a stream then a river of pure water flowing from the temple toward the Dead Sea, getting deeper as it goes, and eventually turning the salt water of that great lake fresh so that fish will live in it again and fisherman would be found on the banks of the Sea. And, since we just hearkened back to the beginning of the world, that kind of water flowed from Eden as well. In the depiction of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 22 we also find a beautiful river. In a dry land and for a city that never had an adequate supply of water, an endless supply of pure water is a powerful image of bounty and blessing. The facts that it flows east and west and throughout the year highlight the measure of the blessing that will be given.

You remember the Lord’s remark about the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 7: how, when he comes, out of the bellies of his disciples shall flow rivers of living water. That is the idea here: Jerusalem, or the people of God becoming a means of saving grace to the entire world.

v.9       This may be regarded as a statement of the theme of the entire book: “the Lord is king over all the earth.” [Webb, 47] You’ll notice the similarity of the second sentence of v. 9 to the so-called shema of Deut. 6:4. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

v.10     Imagine what is here being described. Jerusalem sits atop a hill. But it is surrounded by other hills that are higher still so that if you travel just a few miles in any direction you can no longer see the city because intervening summits block your line of sight. But now everything around Jerusalem will be lowered, made into a flat plain, so that the city can tower above and display its grandeur as far as the eye can see. Geba was to the north, Rimmon some 35 miles to the southwest. This image is found elsewhere as well. In Micah 4:1, for example, we read:

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it…”

A very similar prophecy is made in Isaiah 2:2. Zechariah is ransacking the Old Testament for images with which to describe the wonders of that last day. [Webb, 180] The point of the imagery is that the church of God will be the glory of the world! If you remember, Zechariah made this point earlier, in the 3rd night vision, by describing a rebuilding of Jerusalem in which the city would become so large that it was pointless to measure it and too large for it to be surrounded by walls (2:1-5); the same idea in a different imagery.

The references to the gates, tower, and winepress would, of course, be obvious to Zechariah’s contemporaries, but their location cannot be identified with certainty today. Perhaps most likely is that they describe the circumference of the city as it then existed in its entirety. In other words, the whole city is meant. [cf. McComiskey, 1236-1238]

v.14     Judah is mentioned as fighting at Jerusalem even though the battle seems to be over at this point. Perhaps the point is made simply to remind us that as God’s people will bear the fight, so they will share in the spoils. [Webb, 180] We read something similar in Rev. 21: how the glory of the nations will be brought into the new Jerusalem.

v.15     Those who come against Jerusalem will be afflicted with a hideous curse; so will the army’s animals. That hearkens back to the destruction of the Assyrian army outside of Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kgs 19:35). They will also fight against one another, as the Midianites did when Gideon attacked them (Judg. 7:22). Having come to plunder God’s people they will themselves be plundered.

v.16     The Lord’s triumph will be demonstrated not only by the total defeat of his and our enemies, but by the submission to him of vast numbers of non-Jews who will number themselves among those who worship Yahweh as God and savior. Here that is put in terms of peoples coming to Jerusalem to participate in Israel’s great feasts, especially the Autumn Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. Passover and Weeks were also pilgrimage festivals, but by the Persian period Tabernacles was the most prominent feast and the highlight of the religious year, something like what Christmas is for us. Since Tabernacles celebrated both the Lord’s provision for Israel in the wilderness and the gathering of the harvest in the autumn of the year it served as a perfect image of the final day: the end of the journey and harvest home. [Webb, 181]

v.17     This participation is enforced by the threat of the withdrawal of rain, a crippling curse in that part of the world, as, contrarily, the provision of water is a great blessing. That the Lord controls the weather is a further demonstration of his power and of the futility of resistance. No sentimentalism here: salvation for some but judgment for others.

v.19     Egypt, Israel’s ancient enemy, is mentioned perhaps because the withdrawal of rain would not affect Egypt as much as other lands, the Nile providing water for its crops whether or not the rain falls. A contemporary of Zechariah might well have thought of the promise of withholding rain, “Well, that wouldn’t hurt Egypt very much.” A plague also evokes memories of the exodus. Great interventions of God on Israel’s behalf are being remembered in this passage to help describe the still greater thing that God will do for his people in the future.

v.21     The image is of complete and perfect sanctification. Even the most common items would be inscribed with “Holy to the Lord,” which was once only inscribed on the plate of the high priest’s turban (Ex. 28:36-38). Ordinary cooking pots would be as holy as the temple vessels, and no one would profane the worship of the temple by being there for selfish reasons (Ezek. 44:9). The word “trader” here is literally “Canaanite.” The idea is of an idolater who is in the temple to make money, not to worship Yahweh. The whole world will have become God’s sanctuary!

So far the Word of God. Now, by this time we are well used to these prospects. Zechariah has been describing them in different ways with different images throughout his book. The people of God will be purified and the church emptied of its hangers-on; those who have no real faith in the Lord or desire to serve him will be separated from the people of God and punished with the world. The purified church will be made the glory of the world and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus — Zechariah’s “king” or “branch” — is Lord. The church will now be composed of believers from throughout the world. The nations will have added their numbers to the people of Yahweh. The unbelieving world, both Jew and Gentile, will be judged and punished.

There is nothing unique to Zechariah in this picture of the future, of course. It is the same prospect that we find throughout the OT prophets and in the New Testament as well, with the added detail in the New Testament that all of this shall reach its consummation at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Zechariah has told us a good bit about the coming king, his suffering for his people, his removing their sin, his leading them to victory, but no one knew that the Messiah would come twice until he came the first time. In the prophetic vision of the future the entire course of the Messiah’s career is forecast as a single, comprehensive event. We have found this prophetic foreshortening or telescoping everywhere in Zechariah, as we find it everywhere in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the rest.

But there is another question here and it is this: precisely what is here being described? Is it the end of history or is it some period before the end; a final or almost final era of human history? Or, in the language of the historic debate: are we reading here in chapter 14 about the end of history and heaven and hell that follow it or are we reading about the millennium. Most of you have some awareness of this much debated question, but for those who do not, let me provide a brief summary.

Since quite early in the history of Christian reflection on the Bible’s teaching about the future, there have been different schools of thought concerning the end of days. As you are aware, there are a number of passages, like this one in Zechariah 14, that predict a day of triumph for the kingdom of God in the world, a kind of golden age of the church. Think of Isaiah’s prophecy of a day when the knowledge of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or when the wolf and the lamb will lie down together (11:1-9), or when men shall beat their swords into ploughshares and learn war no longer (2:1-4). As I mentioned before, there are a number of prophesies that forecast the church’s future glory in the world, when, as the prophets have it, “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of mountains…and all the nations shall flow to it…” (Isa. 2:2). Many of these prophesies are explicitly linked to the appearance and the arrival of the Messiah, whether he is called the branch, the heir of David, the servant of the Lord, or, as in Zechariah 9, Israel’s king. The nations will be put in their place and the people of God will be vindicated. In respect to such prophesies — and there are many like these — Zechariah 14 is entirely typical with its forecast of the judgment of the unbelieving world, Jerusalem as the source of worldwide salvation, and the final triumph of the faithful followers of the Lord.

To add confusion to this debate about precisely when we are to expect this golden age of the church’s triumph, the term for this period of the triumph of the kingdom of God came to be “the millennium,” the period of a thousand years mentioned five times in Revelation 20:1-6. What is confusing about that is that two of the three historic positions on the question of the golden age of the kingdom of God do not think the millennium mentioned in Rev. 20, which is the only place the word appears in the bible, is in fact a reference to the golden age, even though all three positions, at least so far as the nomenclature is concerned, are defined by when they think the millennium will occur, as if they all took the term millennium to refer to the church’s golden age. The advocates of all three positions, in other words, employ the term millennium, even the amillennialists or non-millennialists, who might better be called realized millennialists or present millennialists, who do not in fact believe there is such a thing as a millennium, if by millennium you mean the church’s golden age in human history. The term has been lifted from Rev. 20 and taken on a life of its own. But at least it makes it easier to distinguish the major positions since they all make use of the same term.

The three positions are these.

  1. Amillennialism is the view that there is no golden age in human history. Amillennialists have typically understood these prophetic predictions of a great day of salvation, unprecedented in human history, as descriptions of heaven not earth, of eternity not of time. That is, for example, the interpretation of Anthony Hoekema, a representative and very able amillennialist [The Bible and the Future, 177-178; or in R.G. Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, 174].  Or, they take these prophecies, such as we have here in Zechariah 14, to refer only to the spread of the gospel as that has been happening throughout the entire age since Pentecost. A scholar I very much admire, Dr. Bruce Waltke, for example, sees the prophecy of the mountain of the Lord’s temple rising above all the other mountains as simply a figurative way to describe the spread of the gospel through the world.  So, in that sense, in the amillennial sense, nothing more needs to happen than has already happened to consider these prophecies of the salvation of the nations to have already been fulfilled. That is, such a prediction of the nations streaming to Jerusalem to worship at the Feast of Tabernacles such as we find in Zechariah 14 is being fulfilled as we speak. The water of life has flowed from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth; there are Christians in every nation, and as time marches on there will be more and more Christians from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the face of the earth. The millennium, such as it is, is simply a biblical term for the entire period of history, however long it proves to be, that separates Christ’s first coming from his second.
  2. Postmillennialism is the view that there is a golden age in human history and it will occur shortly before the Second Coming. I know that is confusing, but the “post” in postmillennialism refers to the relationship of the Second Coming to the golden age. Christ will return after or post the millennium. Postmillennialists believe that the golden age will be, in effect, the greatest revival in history. It will be ushered in by the Holy Spirit blessing the ordinary means of grace — prayer, the preaching of the Word, the witness of Christians to unsaved friends, and the faithful nurture of children in Christian homes — and will result in a spiritual situation that may be fairly described as the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea; the worldwide triumph of the gospel.
  3. Premillennialism is the view that there is a golden age in human history but that it occurs after the Second Coming; that is, the Second Coming occurs before or pre the millennium. That golden age, in other words, will be ushered in by the appearance of Jesus himself and by his personal presence in the world. Many premillennialists are also dispensationalists (dispensationalism is a quite recent and distinctive form of premillennialism), but for our purposes tonight it is enough to think of premillennialism as the view that the golden age follows rather than precedes the Second Coming. There is a golden age; post and pre agree about that; they just disagree about when it is to occur or where it falls among the great events of the end of days.

So, what we have are three different answers to two questions: is the salvation of the nations, the time of the gospel’s triumph and the public vindication of the Lord and his people, an event in history or outside of history (is it in this world or in the new heavens and the new earth that it will be true that the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea?)? Postmils and Premils answer that the golden age occurs in history; many amils answer that it is a description of heaven not of earth; other amils believe that such a prospect as we are given in Zechariah 14 is a description of the ordinary advance of the kingdom of God in human history from Pentecost to our own day and until the Second Coming. The second question is: when may we expect this golden age? Postmils say before Christ comes again; premils say after he comes again; and many amils say, you are either seeing it right now before your own eyes or you must wait until we are in heaven to see these prophecies come to pass.

Now, I am fully aware that there are a great many permutations of these views. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, when one of the three views is described as I have described them just now, “Well, I’m an amillennialist, or I’m a postmillennialist, but my view is somewhat different.” Fine. The fact that every representative of each of these views has his own particular wrinkle is a great illustration of the problem we face. It is not an easy task to understand how these texts depicting the triumph of God’s reign in the world are to be understood and, in particular, where that time of triumph is to be placed in the consummation of history. This is not least because, the phenomenon of prophetic foreshortening being what it is, there being no distinction between the Lord’s first and second comings, none of this in Zechariah 14 is explicitly related to the personal appearance of the Messiah and certainly not to his second personal appearance.

Each position has its strengths and, though representatives of the various views will scarcely ever admit this, each position has notable weaknesses. The proof of that is that good and wise men, competent biblical scholars, who know very well the arguments pro and con for each position, still do not agree and all three positions are still strongly supported in biblical and theological scholarship, as they have been throughout Christian history. What seems obvious to one is not nearly so obvious to another! Of course, the unhappy fact is that if you hold to any one of those views, the authorities who support the other two views think you are a nincompoop! I do not like the idea of Augustine, an amillennialist, or Jonathan Edwards, a postmillennialist, thinking that I am a nincompoop, so I keep my mouth largely shut! Unfortunately, John Calvin, an amillennialist, thinks John Pribyl is a nincompoop because he knows that John will think whatever Charles Hodge thinks and Hodge is a postmillennialist. Millennial views are very hard on a Christian’s self-image. Or, they should be! But what does all of this have to do with Zechariah 14?

Well, for example, take verses 17-19. We have read earlier in the chapter that Christ at this time will be king over all the earth. But this does not seem to be a description of heaven. We don’t imagine that in heaven obligations to worship the Lord will have to be enforced by the threat of punishment. We don’t expect in heaven that the Lord would withhold rain from slackers or actually visit the disobedient with a plague. Would such statements as these not favor the view that the golden age of the kingdom of God occurs in the history of this world, that the kingdom’s triumph will occur when there are still unbelievers present? On the other hand there are other interpreters of Zechariah who regard what we have in chapter 14 as a description in general terms of the entire messianic era to its close, that is, not of a specific time and result but as what will happen throughout the entire epoch that separates the Lord’s first coming from his second. [T.V. Moore, 246] Once again, the idiom in which biblical prophecy is communicated lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Always has; always will, I think, at least until the events themselves unfold.

A professor of mine wrote years ago a massive encyclopedia of biblical prophecy. He attempted to identify the fulfillment of every prediction to be found in the Word of God. He was a premillennialist and judged Zechariah 14:17-19 to describe the situation that would pertain during the millennium. Believers and unbelievers would still be together in the world, but the kingdom of God would have triumphed in the world. [J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, 468]

Or think of other passages that likewise depict a day of triumph such as is described in Zechariah 14 but which include statements that seem impossible to reconcile with the life of heaven. In Isaiah 65 we have another prophecy of Jerusalem’s glory. Indeed the paragraph is begun with the statement of the Lord, “Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” That sounds pretty decisive. In the next verses we read that the Lord will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in his people; no more shall be heard in Jerusalem the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. That sounds a lot like Zechariah 14. But in the very next verse, Isaiah 65:20, still describing the great blessing of that future time, we read that a man will be thought to have died young if he dies at a hundred years of age and the sinner who lives to be a hundred shall be thought accursed. That doesn’t sound like heaven. My former professor applies that text as well to the millennium: an increased lifespan yes; but still sinners mixed with the righteous in the world. It certainly seems that Isaiah is describing circumstances still within human history, with believers and unbelievers still jostling together in the human community. On the other hand, here in Zechariah 14:6-7 we seem to have described a new world: a world without darkness, a world of perpetual light. That is the very thing said about heaven and unquestionably about heaven in Revelation 21. That sounds less like human history, doesn’t it?

Each millennial view has an interpretation of such texts or perhaps several such interpretations. T.V. Moore, a 19th century American Presbyterian who wrote a highly regarded commentary on Zechariah, writes this about verse 17:

“V. 17 threatens that upon those who refuse to go up, there shall be no rain. It is not meant to be implied, that at the time predicted there shall be such disobedient persons, for in v. 16 it is clearly implied that there shall be none of such. It is rather a figurative assertion of the fact that, in this future condition, the present mingled state of reward and punishment shall end. Now God sends rain on the just and the unjust, then he will separate the good and the evil, and render unto every man according to his works.” [232]

Well, perhaps; but really? Does verse 17 actually not refer to real persons? That seems to me an interpretation that, rather than simply respecting the figures of speech, turns the whole thing into more of an allegory for which some secret key is required for its understanding. I know what rivers flowing from Jerusalem to the east and the west is meant to convey, but I’m not sure what is meant if vv. 17-19 don’t actually refer to people who refuse to worship God.

However, in Haggai 2:6-7 — remember, Haggai was a contemporary, no doubt a friend of Zechariah — we read this:

“For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.”

That short prophecy is very like what we find in Zechariah 14, so much like it that it seems obvious to me that it is describing the same future that Zechariah is describing in somewhat greater detail. In Hebrews 12 that prophecy from Haggai is explicitly understood as a prophecy of the Second Coming. That convinces me that Zechariah 14 is likewise about the Second Coming (as so many like texts in the Gospels and the book of Revelation). But that hardly answers all our questions. The Second Coming seems to be in many biblical texts a complex of events with a series of events leading up to it and following it. If the Lord wanted us to be sure of a more detailed scenario, he would have given us more information and in a different form. Questions of this type — which comes first, where does this belong in the order of events, and so on — must, therefore, be more interesting than important.

This text, like so many others that place the consummation before us, teaches us rather great and fundamental principles of Christian faith and life: 1) the Lord’s passion for the purity of his people (a passion that is notably absent in our modern Christian culture of the west today); 2) his commitment to save vast multitudes of people out of the world; 3) his plan to use his own people for that purpose (your sanctification and mine, our personal holiness and mine are important to the salvation of the lost; sanctification and missions have always gone together and do today (the great missions movements have always been led by people who are deeply concerned about holiness of life; cf. Boda, 534); and 4) the importance of our living sub specie aeternitatis, in view of the future, in keeping with the Lord’s great purpose for the world and the life of mankind.

What do I carry away from this text and this book? Well, I don’t carry away a lot of confidence that I can tell you exactly in what all order all of these things will happen or even in fact precisely in detail what these things are describing. If somebody tells you he’s sure he’s got this down, turn away and run hard in the opposite direction. But reading Zechariah’s vision of a world being brought to God by the people of God I know very well that my own personal interests ought to be deeply enmeshed with God’s plan and purpose. I ought to live as someone who knows where history is going and why and as someone who wants to contribute to this glorious consummation. If I know that I am on the winning side, I want all the more to contribute to the victory! And I do that by my own pursuit of holiness and purity of life, not simply for myself but self-consciously for the sake for the salvation of others. All of us together have this calling: to make every part of our lives “holy to the Lord,” to purify our worship and our service of the Lord until the world cannot deny that God is among us.

I want to be there to find out what is going to happen and when. I want us all to be there. I want all of us to be together then and there: those who are always pursuing the Lord, always seeking to serve him by serving others in this world, and always taking care to make their calling and election sure. Let there be no Canaanite here among us, but only those who are always in their pursuit of the Lord and his service making their calling and election sure.