Monday, July 4, 2016

Zechariah prophecy of Yahweh on the Mount of Olives

All I have ever heard about Zechariah 14:4 has been baloney. Here it is (NRSV):
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which 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 withdraw northward, and the other half southward.
Most of the time when I have heard this verse cited, it was in a context of "Jesus will fulfill this prophecy" as in, sometime in the yet future.

I have a book idea that has affected how I have been studying the Bible. One thing I need to do is get a handle on some of those really difficult scriptures. You know, the ones that nobody agrees on. Zechariah 14:4 has bothered me for decades. It is time I get a handle on it. So I studied it. I have studied on my own through Zechariah and most of it makes sense on a regular read through; but Zechariah 14:4 needs some explaining. I needed a little help from actual scholars.

Here is an example of the baloney.
This phenomenon will occur on a day known only to YHWH (v. 7; cf Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7), one unlike any other in that it will have no day or night. (Eugene Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Biblical Studies Press, 2003, p. 307)
In other words, Zechariah 14:4 predicts the second coming of Christ, or possibly, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.


That meaning is totally out of the theme of Zechariah! According to Ezra 6:14-15, Zechariah was interested in issues surrounding the completion of the Second Temple. The destruction of the temple is off topic. The final wrap-up of history with the coming of Christ is WAY off topic.

In the context of Zechariah 14:4, there is an expectation of a war similar to the Babylonian contact when Judah went into exile. In this experience, many Jews will die and the rest will go into exile. That's when Yahweh shows up. He does not defeat the Gentiles. Instead, he provides a way of escape for the faithful.

As the chapter goes on, Jerusalem becomes a source of blessing for the nations, with Yahweh as her king. This fulfills the expected vocation of Israel (Genesis 12:13).

Whatever this passage is about, it is not about the final coming of Christ. Some folks have read it that way and have come up with a psudo-premillennial eschatology. I can't help them with that.

Here's what I think is going on. Zechariah sees injustice going on in Jerusalem. The people in Jerusalem were not properly recognizing their vocation of opening up the religion to the Gentiles. The prophet expects another turnover of power much like what happened during the Babylonian contact. The faithful are defined as those who get on board with completing the temple project. Once it is complete, the presence of Yahweh will return to Jerusalem as it had been before the Babylonian exile. The description of Yahweh in Zechariah 14:4 recalls his description in Ezekiel 43:1-5. Zechariah's listeners would have recognized Ezekiel's description and meaning.
Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory.  The vision I saw was like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision that I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
Zechariah expected a return to God's rule through temple presence but with a priesthood that is open to Gentile worshippers. Zechariah did not expect an end to the Davidic kingship. In fact, he expected the return of the throne of David through the governor (Zechariah 4:6-14).

To put it straightforwardly, just because something in a Biblical prophet is sufficiently bizarre so as to have never been literally fulfilled does not mean it is to be fulfilled in the yet future.

I will show in a future article that prophecies don't have to be fulfilled ever; but that's a topic for later.

Practical applications:
(1) This is one of a multitude of scriptures in which the standard rhetoric about it is cool and maybe even faith-building in a childish sort of way. When the actual meaning of the passage is scrutinized we might feel a massive let-down. The special effects are all gone. The light show is a dud. Understand this! Your and my personal salvations are rooted in surrender to and trust in Jesus. My understanding of eschatology will not help. In fact, some eschatolical models can seriously distract us from living for Jesus. I can get so distracted trying to figure out the meaning of prophecy that I neglect the weightier matters (Matthew 23:23).
(2) You should not swallow what the preacher says, hook, line and sinker (Acts 17:11). Check it out. Look up writings of people who disagree... especially believing Christians who take a different view. Otherwise, you may hear it from an unbeliever on PBS or the History Channel and that person may not care a hill of beans about your faith. That very problem is one of the reasons for this blog. I am a believer and I have struggled through some difficult faith adjustments and I am still a believer. I am not going to try to insulate you from challenging facts. It is better for you to hear it from a believer than from an atheist.

In the mean time, I must give gracious credit for clarifying my mind on Zechariah 14:4 to the writer Pamela J. Scalise who co-wrote the Understanding the Bible 2nd volume commentary on the Minor Prophets (Baker, 2009). I was so appreciative, I looked for any other books she may have written. Unfortunately, I didn't find much. She co-wrote the second volume of the Word Biblical Commentary on Jeremiah. I try to stay away from that particular commentary series unless the scholar is just too venerable to not read even in the Word Commentary format. Bummer. She's pretty smart.

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