Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading Zechariah 14, the last chapter in a book that has taken over three months to complete. Because I have spread out this study, putting every chapter under the interpretative microscope, I want to pause and zoom out to remind everyone again of the importance and influence of Zechariah, especially on the New Testament. Zechariah is quoted from or alluded to seventy-one times in the New Testament. Only the book of Isaiah trumps Zechariah in its total number of messianic typologies. During our study, I made note of all the times the New Testament writers directly quoted from Zechariah (8:16, 9:9, 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7). Revelation was the exception. Revelation so frequently echoes Zechariah that I found it impossible to outline all the overlap. Suffice it to say, John of Patmos was a big Zechariah guy.
Despite Zechariah’s enormous influence on the New Testament writers, the book rarely gets more than a passing reference in Christian Bible studies. At some point from the time of the early church to now, Zechariah lost popularity. I understand that the vision sequence seems obtuse, the shepherd imagery jumps around, and the oscillation between promises and curses is dizzying. Feeling that way about Zechariah does not make you less of a believer. What I have enjoyed about this deeper study of Zechariah is the process of mining the prophetic text for surprises. Those have popped up in every chapter in the form of historical insights, glimmering poetry, funny hypotheticals, messianic profiles, and apocalyptic symbols. All that to say, it has been a fun spiritual ride and I hope you have enjoyed Zechariah as much as I have.
Zechariah 14’s first scene has enemy nations of Jerusalem dividing her spoils. Plunder, rape, and exile are not the high notes that I hoped for in the book’s closing chapter. Jerusalem will suffer defeat and humiliation. Even worse, God will first allow the nations to overrun Jerusalem before he intervenes. Yahweh says, “I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle” (14:2). Verse 2 and 5 are the only times that Yahweh speaks directly in chapter 14, once to call for Jerusalem’s destruction and once for her deliverance. For Zechariah’s audience, the destruction narrative likely sounded eerily similar to the Babylonian invasion. Surely, Zechariah’s words sent shivers down their PTSD spines.
God will send into exile half of the city’s inhabitants, but he promises a remnant will remain (14:2). To the remnant, Zechariah devotes the rest of his oracle, promising their deliverance. The basic premise of remnant theology is that God will punish his people, but he will never allow them to go extinct. In the biblical period, the biggest threats to their national survival were the Assyrian exile and then the Babylonian exile. For the two thousand years after the close of the cannon, the Jewish people have endured expulsions, pogroms, and an evil plan of mass murder. And yet, the Jewish people survive, as individuals, people, and now a nation.
The ravaging of Jerusalem by hostile armies induces Yahweh’s coming: “Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle” (14:3). The prophets constantly justify God’s allowance of human agents to mete out his punishment on the people. But the nations repeatedly overstep their boundaries and God is left pouring out his vengeance on them. Chapter 12 described this same divine intervention on Jerusalem’s behalf (12:3-9), but it left out the part that the people would initially suffer a loss.
Yahweh descends down to earth and places his feet on the Mount of Olives (14:4). God’s intervention into human space causes a seismic shift: the mountain splits in two with one half shifting to the north and the other half shifting to the south. The result is that a fissure is formed running east to west between the parted mountains providing an escape route for God’s people to find refuge. The imagery evokes the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus.
Zechariah instructs the survivors to flee like they “fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah” (14:5). The prophet Amos referenced the same eighth century BCE earthquake in his superscription (Amos 1:1). Over two hundred years later, the people apparently recall the earthquake’s aftermath.
The Mount of Olives sits higher than Mount Moriah on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley. To this day, every tour of Jerusalem takes a bus to the Mount of Olives at sunset to see the best possible view of the Temple Mount. While the Mount of Olives is a sensical choice for Yahweh’s lookout point, this is the only place in the Hebrew scriptures that the Mount of Olives is associated with a theophany.
Zechariah’s audience was already familiar with the mountains and valleys around Jerusalem. On the surface, it seems strange that Zechariah specifies that the Mount of Olives “lies before Jerusalem on the east” (14:4). Zechariah scholars think the prophet may be alluding to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh’s spirit departing from Jerusalem toward the “mountain east of it” (Ezek. 11:23). This occurred before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Zechariah has Yahweh returning over a century later from the same direction he departed.
Once God’s people are safe and out of the way, God attacks the enemy nations with an army of “holy ones” (14:5), his own angelic army. With Yahweh’s physical intervention into the human realm, cataclysmic events follow. God manifests his power over earth and sky. In the Masoretic text, Zechariah 14:6 translates “the precious ones will congeal,” which interpreters understand as the darkening of the sun and moon. The Septuagint reads differently with the statement “there shall not be either cold or frost” which may also be a way of saying the sun and moon stopped functioning.
Zechariah continues, “there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light” (14:6). The twenty-four-hour day disappears. Morning is dark and the evening is light. God is reversing creation, breaking everything down to chaos before he can rebuild the world anew.
The darkening of the skies is a recurring feature in the prophets. Jeremiah describes a darkened sky and a blackened heaven as a harbinger of Jerusalem’s destruction (Jer. 4:23, 28). In Joel, the celestial bodies darken before the final judgement on the nations (Joel 3:15). The prophet Isaiah also predicted that on the Day of the Lord, the celestial bodies would withhold their light (Isa. 13:10). Zechariah has a slightly different twist. The sun, moon, and stars lose their functionality, and yet Jerusalem still has light in the evening. Revelation alludes to the Zechariah prophecy with its own interpretation. John, writing about the age to come says, “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
Continuing the theme of God’s interjection into nature, Zechariah envisions living water flowing out from Jerusalem, half of it to the eastern sea which is the Dead Sea and half of it to the western sea which is the Mediterranean (14:8).
Jerusalem’s only living water source was the Gihon Spring. Before the city walls were expanded to include the spring, its location left the inhabitants vulnerable. They could not leave the city gates and retrieve water without putting themselves at risk. Because the Gihon’s flow was sporadic and insufficient, Jerusalemites also hewed cisterns to collect seasonal rainwater. It is no wonder why many a prophet envisioning an ideal future for Jerusalem describes a perennial water source for the holy city. Ezekiel goes into much more elaborate detail than Zechariah about a river that will stream from under the Temple to nourish the whole of the land and even transform the Dead Sea to fresh water (Ezek. 47:1-12).
The culmination of Yahweh’s intervention on earth is the establishment of his kingdom over all the earth. When he reigns and rules from Jerusalem, all will acknowledge the oneness of God. Alluding to the Shema, Zechariah says, “on that day the Lord will be one and his name one” (14:9). A Jewish listener of Bible Fiber reminded me that religious Jews recite Zechariah 14:9 daily. In synagogues, Jewish services conclude with the liturgical prayer Aleinu, the second most recited prayer in the Jewish prayer book. The prayer’s last lines quote Zechariah 14:9: “You shall know and take to heart this day that the Lord is God, in the heavens above and on earth below. There is no other.”
Despite the universal message so central to Zechariah, his apocalyptic symbolism centers on the physical aspects of an earthly Jerusalem. His earthbound language really comes through in verses 10 and 11. Zechariah is describing the exaltation of Jerusalem so that its spiritual influence will radiate out to the world. To raise up Jerusalem, God flattens the surrounding terrain like Giba to the north and Rimmon to the south of the city. As the throne of Yahweh, Jerusalem will exist on a high God-made plateau. Zechariah lists landmarks around the perimeter of the city like gates, a tower, and winepresses. He is describing the ideal limits of the city, but verbally mapping it with historical landmarks.
After this preview of Jerusalem’s status in a future day of peace, Zechariah jumps back to the battle against the nations. The defeat of Judah’s enemies which Zechariah describes as “all the nations” (14:2) will be supernatural. Yahweh sends a plague to wipe out the hostile armies. Like a nuclear blast, the suddenness of the curse leaves their flesh, eyes, and tongue rotting while they still stand (14:12). Even the animals in the army camps will succumb to the plague (14:15). Those who survive turn on each other in confused panic.
Letting dazed enemy armies defeat themselves is one of the Bible’s favorite war strategies. All the Israelites have to do is march in for the cleanup job. That is how Gideon’s army beat the Midianites (Judg. 7:22). It is how Saul routed the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:20). And it is even how the Philistines ended up returning the Ark of the Covenant after they stole it (1 Sam. 5:9).
When the war dust settles, the nations stream to Jerusalem to worship the one true God. Zechariah says, “then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Festival of Booths” (14:16). The prophecy does not say if the nations are sacrificing, converting, or following God’s laws. All we know is that they are called to worship. Five times when the passage describes the nations pilgrimage, Zechariah says they are “going up” to Jerusalem. In the Bible, even if the route to Jerusalem is a physical descent, the spiritual ascent to the holy city always uses the verbiage “going up.”
Throughout his book, Zechariah has nurtured a vision for the redeemed gentiles who will join themselves to the people of God (2:11). They too have a place and purpose in the restored Jerusalem.
Three times a year Jews were required to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the Temple: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot which is also called the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot is a weeklong remembrance of the wilderness period when the people were freshly freed from slavery and strictly reliant on God for all their needs. Sukkot is the honeymoon period in their covenant relationship with Yahweh. It also marks the end of the harvest season so pilgrims bring a portion of their harvests with them to pay tribute. With God extending the covenant out to the redeemed gentiles, it is a fitting choice for them to participate in Sukkot celebrations.
Think back to Zechariah 7 and the Bethel delegation’s visit to Jerusalem to ask if they should still keep the fast days dedicated to the destroyed temple. Zechariah called out the emptiness of the ritual fasts observed in exile and called his people to feast and celebrate with joy (8:19). He saw a coming day when the nations would “take hold of a Jew” and be drawn to Jerusalem as the place to seek the Lord’s favor (8:20-23). Now, he is extending that invitation to the gentiles who have joined in the worship of Yahweh.
In Nehemiah, the postexilic community gathered on Sukkot to read the Torah and renew their commitment to the covenant (Neh. 8-9). In Zechariah’s day, the people longed for a repopulated Jerusalem and a functional Temple. Imagining a worldwide pilgrimage to the Temple Mount must have seemed so far beyond the scope of possibilities.
However, Zechariah does not guarantee the universality of Yahweh worship. The prophet threatens rebellious nations who refuse to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Whoever does not celebrate Sukkot will be denied rain and endure another round of plagues. Yahweh singles out Egypt to represent the recalcitrant nations, perhaps because of Egypt’s historical enmity toward Judah. Or Zechariah is being practical. Egypt was not sensitive to drought because of the Nile River so the prophet is reminding the water-rich nation that they too are vulnerable to God’s punishments.
The chapter and thereby the book ends with what Bible scholars call a chiastic arrangement, a writing style where the second section repeats the details or develops the ideas of the first section but in reverse order. The message is that “on that day,” God will impart holiness to the whole world. All will be sanctified. Every category of holiness will expand outward. The oracle started with terrestrial alterations and celestial miracles, but it ends with horse bells and cooking pots. If what God was doing in the shaking of the earth and the darkening of the skies seemed unrelatable, the oracle brings it down to the very relatable.
Zechariah says, “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to Yahweh” (14:20). Horses were an unclean animal in the Bible. Zechariah uses the example of horse bells to show the transformation of even the smallest and least important object in everyday use. Zechariah is working hard to shock his audience. Horse bells will be promoted to the same status as the vestments of the high priest.
By the ritual standards of the Levitical priesthood, only the high priest at the Temple wore a turban with a gold plate inscribed “Holy to Yahweh” (Ex. 28:36-38). For his audience, the reference to the inscription Holy to Yahweh brought one image to mind, that of the high priest and not of unclean horse bells.
Zechariah adds that with the establishment of God’s kingdom, “the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar” (14:20). Normally, the everyday work of Temple sacrifice involved profane vessels and sacred vessels. The priests used the common to prepare sacrifices and to clean up from the messy business of sacrificial worship. But there were sacred vessels used in the most important parts of the ceremony. Those vessels were sanctified for Temple use and carefully maintained. Zechariah is saying that in the age to come, the cooking vessels will be held in the same esteem as the ceremonial vessels.
When I read the end of Zechariah 14 with its elevation of all things common to sacred, I am reminded of the company Jesus kept in his life on earth. We know from the gospels that Jesus preferred to associate with the poor, the sinners, the tax collectors, and the fisherman. Both in deed and word, Jesus lived out Zechariah’s prophecy of the common rising to the ranks of the sacred. Jesus told his followers, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus is equating himself, who as Christians we believe to be the very Son of God, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. The human form of horse bells and cooking pots are the ones Jesus calls “the least of these.” And through his saving work, all break free of their mundane status and enter the realm of the eternal. Zechariah is predicting a future when the distinction between holy and unholy will vanish. Jesus ushered in that day breaking the barrier that separated humans from their creator God.
That is a wrap for the prophet Zechariah! The load of Zechariah commentaries that have been on my desk for months are going to be shelfed today. Join me next week for the prophet Malachi!
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