Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

14. The Valley of the Mountain

"Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle" (Zechariah 14:3).

This is the climax, this the farthest limit of the powers of this world. At this point God breaks through into human history, and for the first time, perhaps, since the days of Jehoshaphat, the armed forces of earth come up against a power which is from heaven, and because it is from heaven cannot be resisted. The Lord comes forth to war, as He did do several times in Israel’s national history, but this time He comes forth not only for the deliverance of the Holy Nation from its immediate enemies, but the deliverance of all mankind from the great enemy. Here, at this time, the dominion of evil is to be overthrown and in its place instituted an order of things "wherein dwelleth righteousness".

How does the Lord go forth and with what weapons does He fight? There are not wanting expositors who visualise a sanguinary (bloodthirsty) combat in which all the instruments of devilry devised by man are used on both sides, and a victory distinguished by masses of dead and wounded strewn over a blood‑soaked land. It is true that many of the prophetic foreviews of this final conflict are couched in such terms but this is because men, accustomed to such scenes, can only visualise a conflict in which one side gains the victory and the other suffers defeat in some such manner. These foreviews must be taken as pictures illustrating the principles involved; the issues to be decided in this battle are greater by far than can be resolved by the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings, most of whom are still so ignorant of the eternal verities that, like the men of Nineveh in Jonah’s time, they cannot "discern between their right hand and their left hand". (4:11) Just as Jesus said "the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them" so now, when God is pictured as descending upon the Mount of Olives amid awesome cataclysms of Nature it is not that He might destroy men, opposed to His righteousness and unregenerate as they are, but that He might destroy their capacity for accomplishing their evil designs and reduce them to a condition of submissiveness before Him, that He might then "withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man." (Job 33:17) It must be expected therefore that the actual concrete actions and events by means of which the prophecy is to be accomplished can be only imperfectly visualised, involved as they are with celestial powers the nature of which is outside our ken (perception). The natural picture presented by Zechariah, the descent, the earthquake, the battle and so on, is to be regarded as a picture, a painting which, when regarded and considered, conveys a message; it is the message that is of importance.

Perhaps the cardinal principle to be built into a satisfactory understanding of this passage is that which was illustrated on those previous occasions when Israel, exercising faith, was delivered in the face of apparently hopeless odds. "Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD" said Moses just before the Red Sea crossing. "The Egyptians whom you have seen today: ye shall see them again no more for ever. The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace" (Exod.14:13‑14). The people obeying, in faith stepped down into the sea‑bed and were delivered. "Be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him" was good King Hezekiah’s exhortation to his people at the time of the siege. "With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah". (2 Chron.32:7‑8) And in that night the host of the armies of Assyria melted away. When the forces of Moab and Ammon and Edom invaded Judah, to cut them off from being a people, "all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children" while King Jehoshaphat, standing in the Temple court, lifted up his voice to God "we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee" (2 Chron.20:12‑13); their faith was vindicated and Judah was saved. So in this, the greatest and final deliverance, the situation that is pictured is one in which the cleansed and dedicated Nation manifests serene confidence as to the outcome, the enemy surrounds the land with every expectation of an easy victory; the armies of heaven advance to the battle and in an awe‑inspiring display of other‑worldly power frustrate the invaders’ purpose and reduce their armed might to nothingness.

The features which Zechariah saw in his prophetic vision are well known. The people, in the city, waiting. The invaders, having already taken captive and sent into exile the fainthearted and apostates from among the people, preparing to follow up their advantage. Only the men of faith remain and it seems that even for them there is now no hope. Perhaps they have all gathered in the Temple courts as did their predecessors in the days of Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah to pray for deliverance, the while the enemy is already rifling the houses. And at that moment besieged and besiegers alike look up into the skies and behold a stupendous sight; God Most High, the Ancient of Days, descending, accompanied by His attendants and holy ones, descending upon the Mount of Olives, His feet touching the sacred soil, a mighty earthquake, the Mount cloven in two, a deep chasm from west to east separating the mountain into two parts, that great multitude of exultant foes halting in their tracks as they move in for the kill, finding their eyes being burned out of their sockets by the dazzling radiance, their tongues stilled and destroyed by the terror and thunder of the earthquake, their bodies maimed and destroyed as the earth heaves and opens and swallows them up; a blind unreasoning panic seizes them and they turn each against other, the blind, the dumb and the maimed until, at the end, there are none left. The mountainous districts surrounding Jerusalem which, from time immemorial, had looked down upon the city from their superior height of several hundreds of feet, are broken up by the earthquake and sink down to form a low‑lying plain like the plain of Jordan, and within that broken up terrain is buried for ever the remains of the host that had defied the living God. In the centre of the plain stands, proudly, Jerusalem upon her hills, exalted "above the tops of the mountains". And so the Nation is saved, and so perish all the enemies of the Lord. That is the picture as drawn in verses 4‑15 of Zechariah’s 14th chapter. How should it be interpreted?

"And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives...and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south." (ch.14:4)

This is an earthquake; but is it a literal or a metaphorical earthquake? It is a very common practice among prophetic students to interpret the whole of this passage upon a literal basis. Geologically, there is nothing against the possibility. The entire land is in an earthquake zone which runs up from the Red Sea and into Galilee and Syria. Earthquakes have occurred there a goodly number of times in history and Zechariah refers to one such in his very next verse. There is nothing in the prophetic description from verse 4 to 11 which is physically—geologically—incapable of realisation. That does not demand, of course, that the prophecy is intended to have such literal fulfilment; the possibility that this is a figurative use of language, in line with practically the whole of Zechariah’s prophecy, to picture happenings and processes of a more fundamental nature and involving greater issues, must also be considered. It could also be argued that the prophecy has a dual function, possessing literal and figurative elements. But it has to be shown that the interpretation suggested has some valid place and purpose in the outworking of the plan, that it contributes towards the attainment of the predetermined end, which in this case is the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom, and this will be the endeavour here.

The descent of the Lord upon the Mount of Olives obviously marks the moment of Divine intervention in earth’s affairs. This is true whether the descent is literal, the Deity in visible human form taking His stance upon the mountain top, or figurative. This same theme is dwelt upon elsewhere. "The LORD also shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake" says Joel (Joel 3:16). "The LORD cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft" is Micah’s contribution (Micah 1:3‑4) although here the prophet is talking about Divine judgment imminent upon Israel and Judah of his own day. In like fashion Nahum tells of coming judgment upon Assyria; "The LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries…the mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence" (Nahum 1:2,5). In these latter two instances the language is figurative; history shows that. Likewise the variety of allusions in the Old Testament to the event now under consideration directs the conclusion that the language here is figurative also. In Joel the Lord "roars out of Zion"—Jerusalem. In Daniel 7 He appears on a heavenly throne to conduct the Last Assize and invest the Son of Man with the rulership of earth. In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, quoted by Jude, (Jude 14‑15) and possibly enshrining some very ancient prophecy not otherwise included in the canonical books, the place of descent is said to be Sinai, "The Holy Great One will come forth from his dwelling, and the eternal God will dwell upon the earth, on Mount Sinai, and appear in the strength of his might from the heavens...and the high mountains shall be shaken and the high hills shall be made low, and the earth shall be rent in sunder...and behold, he cometh with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment upon all... " (Enoch 1:3‑2:1). In any case this whole picture has to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament revelation that it is Christ the Son who comes in person to the earth at this time to deliver Israel and subdue all evil; since this deliverance is but one of the sequence of events occupying the Parousia, his presence, the descent on the Mount of Olives becomes the symbol of the first outward evidence that his Presence is an accomplished fact. Up to that point of time many will have continued to say "where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as…from the beginning of…creation" (2 Pet.3:4). Beyond that point, all will realise the fact, and believe.

The impact of that intervention upon men, and its consequences upon the enemy, is likened to an earthquake. At the coming of the Lord the earth will quake, the heavens pass away, the sun and the moon become dark, the stars cease to shine, the works of man be burned up—all these symbols are used to describe the disintegration and utter destruction of man’s world, which in this context is synonymous with evil things, because man’s world is predominately evil. A new world is to follow in which all the good that has survived—for such good as does exist in this present world, because good is lasting, will survive—will blossom forth into greater good under the more favourable conditions of that world. So Zechariah tells of a great earthquake which splits the Mount of Olives into northern and southern parts with a valley between. Geographically that valley, running east‑west, would be exactly opposite the East Gate of the Temple; the idea is irresistible that the prophecy intends some notice to be taken of that fact.

The succeeding verse has given translators—and expositors—a great deal of trouble. As it appears in the A.V. the meaning is very obscure. Speaking of this valley the verse says "ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee." (14:5) When the descent and the earthquake are held to be literal it is said that the citizens of Jerusalem will flee into this valley for protection and shelter—ignoring the fact that people do not run toward the site of an earthquake for safety but away from it. In any case the text, as with all such obscure passages, needs closer examination before interpreting.

The preposition "to" is in italics, having been supplied by the A.V. translators because there is no preposition in the Hebrew, which should read in the A.V. "ye shall flee the valley" i.e. away from it and not into it.

The word Azal has been put in as a place name but no such place in the district is known. Properly, the word is el‑atsal and some expositors have suggested that this may be intended for the Bet‑ha‑etsal of Micah 1:11 which, say some hopefully, was perhaps to the east of the Mount of Olives. In fact this place was near Beer‑Sheba, twenty‑five miles in the other direction, so that geographically this could not have been intended.

The mention of the earthquake in the days of Uzziah should next be investigated. Zechariah refers to this as though it was a well‑known event to the people of his day even although it was by then over two centuries in the past. No account of this earthquake is given in Biblical history, the only other allusion being by the prophet Amos, who says he began his prophetic ministry in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam, king of Israel, "two years before the earthquake." (Amos 1:1) It was evidently a happening which made a deep impression and of which the memory was long lasting. Fortunately Josephus gives an account of it; his account reveals the similarities which led Zechariah to use it as an illustration in this later picture of Divine intervention and Divine judgment. It will be remembered that the books of Kings and Chronicles relate how Uzziah arrogated to himself the priestly duty of offering incense in the Temple, for which sacrilege he was smitten with leprosy. Josephus declares that the earthquake came as Divine judgment for the act. He says (Ant.9:10.4). "Uzziah…was corrupted in his mind by pride... Accordingly, when a...general festival was to be celebrated, he put on the holy garment, and went into the temple to offer incense to God upon the golden altar, which he was prohibited to do by Azariah the high–priest...And when they cried out, that he must go out of the temple,...he was wroth at them, and threatened to kill them...In the meantime, a great earthquake shook the ground, and a rent was made in the temple, and the bright rays of the sun shone through it, and fell upon the king’s face, insomuch that the leprosy seized upon him immediately; and before the city, at a place called Eroge, half the mountain broke off from the rest on the west, and rolled itself four stadia (four furlongs, about half a mile), and stood still at the east mountain, till the roads, as well as the king’s gardens, were spoiled (blocked) by the obstruction". The source of Josephus’ information is unknown and no independent check on its veracity is possible; physically however, the account is consistent with the topography of Jerusalem. His "east mountain" is the Mount of Olives; the "west mountain", the heights of Ophel at the south‑eastern corner of the city half a mile away, on the slopes of which were the "king’s gardens", and at the foot, the "fountain of the fowler" called En‑rogel, the "Eroge" of his account. It would appear that part of Ophel collapsed and fell four hundred feet into the valley separating it from the Mount of Olives and blocked the valley besides burying the king’s gardens. Such a line of cleavage, extended northward, would intersect the Temple area and account for the effect noted by Josephus.

With this background story in mind attention can be turned back to verse 5. The first important factor to notice is the expression "ye shall flee", appearing twice in the verse. A great many ancient authorities adopt a term meaning "to be blocked up" in lieu of this expression and this rendering, which is also that of the Septuagint, has been adopted by modern translators such as the R.S.V. and Moffatt. The determining word in the original Hebrew, which was without vowels, is ynstm, which is pointed in some manuscripts as yenastem, "ye shall flee", and in others as yenistam, "shall be blocked up". The expression in the A.V. "shall reach unto Azal", critically rendered, means to turn toward each other so as to touch or join together. Thus the sense of this verse is not that of anyone fleeing, either into or away from, the valley, but of the valley itself being closed or blocked up. This is where the analogy of Uzziah’s earthquake holds good; Josephus says that the valley was blocked by the earthquake. So the best translation of this verse, supported by the LXX and the modern translators mentioned, would read "and the valley of the mountains shall be blocked up, for the valley of the mountains shall close together as it was blocked up by the earthquake in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah".

So far for the rendering, but what does it mean? Why should there be an earthquake, creating a valley through the centre of the Mount of Olives, if the next step is to close up that valley again? Is the solution connected with the remaining elements in the verse "and the Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with him" (LXX)?

This, in fact, is the answer. This dividing of the Mount of Olives pictures not only the last event of "this present evil world" but also the first event of the "world to come, wherein dwelleth righteousness". It pictures God, in Christ, not only coming to judgment upon the last adversaries to resist the incoming Kingdom, but also His coming in splendour to take up His dwelling with men, as realised in the Millennial Presence. And to appreciate this it is necessary to associate this vision of Zechariah with that of his predecessor Ezekiel when that prophet saw, in like manner, the glory of the Lord coming from the East to take up residence with his people.

The 43rd chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy describes how he took his stand by the East Gate of the Millennial Temple. "And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory". (Ezek.43:2)And the glory of the Lord came into the Temple by the East Gate, and a proclamation was made to the effect that the Lord was now to dwell with Israel for ever—and then the East Gate was shut, never again to be opened. The reason? "This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut". (Ezek.44:2) In figurative sense, the Lord had come, finding the gate open to receive Him. He was never again to go away, for now His people were ready to accept Him and not repudiate Him again. No need for another to come would ever arise, for He will be all‑sufficient. So the gate would never need to be used again; it could be shut and the way closed for all time.

Now this is what Zechariah also saw. Within the limits of his vision he saw Jerusalem and its Temple, with its own East Gate fronting directly upon the Mount of Olives. He saw the enemies of Israel around the city and he knew that God was coming, not only for their overthrow but to dwell with Israel eternally. And the valley through the middle of the Mount of Olives made a passage for the God of Israel, coming from the East straight to that East Gate. That is why, when before his eyes that great chasm appeared in the Mount, and he saw also the Lord advancing through it toward the city he cried out in ecstasy "and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee (him)". (Zech.14:5)

That explains why the valley is to be blocked up. Just as in Ezekiel’s vision the East Gate of his Temple was to be permanently closed after the God of Israel had passed through it into the Temple, so here, the valley is similarly to be blocked up after the God of Israel has passed through it on His way to deliver his people. The symbols used by the two prophets differ, but the principle is the same. There are yet other effects of the earthquake to be described in succeeding verses, but here at this point, the Lord comes, His holy ones with Him, to deliver His people and remain with them forever.