Saturday, July 06, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (25)

Martin Luther said of Zechariah 14, “Here, in this chapter, I give up. For I am not sure what the prophet is talking about.” Apparently he wrote two commentaries on Zechariah, both of which ended abruptly with chapter 13. John Calvin likewise demurred to offer an interpretation, for which many of us are eternally grateful.

There is no problem interpreting Zechariah 14 if you take it literally, believe God is God and that he keeps his covenants with no cute allegorical cheats. None. So I am definitely not boldly going where no man has gone before. Lots of men have gone there. They just didn’t spiritualize everything they ever encountered in the Old Testament and apply it to the Church. Steer clear of that interpretational dead-end, and you’ll be fine. So let’s have at it!

Apocryphal Tales

There’s a much-exchanged internet tale about the building of the old International Hotel in Jerusalem (now the Hotel 7 Arches) in 1964. It’s said that engineers working at the original site on the Mount of Olives noted the plans had it being constructed over a fault line, a zone of instability in the earth’s crust. The owners allegedly then decided to relocate their new build further south.

The story is probably true, but I can only find it on Christian websites, often in almost exactly the same wording, which suggests a limited number of possible sources for the tale, all of which could potentially be accused of having a special theological interest in “fault-finding”, so to speak.

Safer Ground

I felt on safer ground finding confirmation of the fault’s existence in the geography section of an Israeli informational blog about the area:

The fault line from west to east, in the southern portion of the Mount of Olives, has elevated the mountain northward and exposed layers of limestone and dolomite from the Cenomanian-Turanian Period in the western section of the mountain, the same section that faces the Judean anticline.”

I know nothing whatsoever about the Cenomanian-Turanian Period, assuming there actually was one, but that sounds to me like independent, unbiased evidence of an existing fault line running east-west across the Mount of Olives. Reporter Callum Hoare noted the theological significance of that geological feature in a 2019 Express article:

“Strangely, geologists have discovered a geometric fault line running east to west right through the Mount of Olives.”

Apparently, then, it is so.

East to West

The “east to west” aspect is the most intriguing part, as the much bigger and more well-known fault line in Israel runs north-south through the Dead Sea about 25 miles east of the Mount of Olives, where the African and Arabian tectonic plates meet. The latter area has been the site of significant seismic activity in the past, including a 1927 earthquake in which 130 people died and 450 more were injured. That’s what usually happens when plates shift unexpectedly and earthquakes result. Experts estimate Jerusalem gets a sizable quake every 80-100 years. That makes the next big one due some time this decade, give or take.

That’s not a prediction. The wind and the waves obey the word of our Lord Jesus. It should be beyond obvious he has no need to time his return to earth to coincide with a semi-predictable natural disaster. If he wants to, he can generate one on the spot, and it wouldn’t matter how stable or unstable the earth under him happens to be. It’s just interesting that he’s picked a location for his return that is naturally disposed to break nicely into two sides of a great valley.

The existence of this lesser-known fault running east-west strongly suggests the prophet Zechariah was on to something big long before Jordanian engineers went looking for safe place to build a hotel.

III. Two Oracles (continued)

2/ Concerning Israel (continued)

The Gathering of Nations, the Second Coming and Reign

Zechariah 14:1-7 — The Lord Joins the Fight

“Behold, a day is coming for the Lord, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that 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 move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.”

The Spoil Taken From You

“To the victor go the spoils.” So goes the adage, and it’s said to date back to ancient Rome. The modern version belongs to Abba: “The winner takes it all.” That’s how you know the war is over. The victors start dividing the spoils, usually right in front of the sobbing, exhausted losers. But sometimes the victory celebration is premature. It definitely was at the cross, when the Roman soldiers divided the garments of the Lord Jesus into four parts and cast lots for his tunic. They thought it was all over at that point, when it was only just beginning.

Something similar will happen in future Jerusalem when the invading armies of the nations humiliate Israel. They will plunder their houses, rape Jewish women and divide Israeli spoil, even leading half the survivors out of the city toward the imminent prospect of their third major exile. Perhaps in that moment Israel will recall the words of Jeremiah’s Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” The sorrow of a nation humiliated by its Chaldean captors anticipated the sorrow of the cross and the affliction of Messiah at the hands of a different group of Gentiles.

Lessons from the Recent Past

If it seems hard to believe that conquering soldiers in enlightened modernity would resort to plunder and rape like savages, remember, these will be Israel’s mortal enemies, probably led by Arabs from the region as fanatical as the Hamas attackers on October 7 last year. Many in the Western media denied or downplayed the rapes and sexual violence committed that day, but even The New York Times has printed sufficient evidence to confirm the eyewitness reports.

This will be Israel’s moment to finally recognize its Messiah. Ironically, it will come when the nation experiences some of the same things he experienced: the violence at Gentile hands, the humiliation and degradation, the dividing of his property, even the strange darkness of a unique day and the appearance that all is lost.

But it isn’t. God will reveal his Messiah at last, and his nation will recognize him as Jesus of Nazareth, mourning for him as described in chapter 12. Who knows? Perhaps there will even be a three-day interval prior to his shocking appearance on the Mount of Olives. Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations.

The Valley of My Mountains

There was a significant seismic event right after Jesus died. The earth shook. The rocks were split. As mentioned in our introduction, that wasn’t the most recent earthquake in Jerusalem’s history. It also wasn’t the earliest; this very passage mentions a big quake in the days of King Uzziah. After the 1927 quake, Jerusalem also experienced minor tremors as recently as 2016 and 2017. In the fifth or sixth century BC, Zechariah could have known nothing about fault lines or geologic instabilities, yet he even gets the east-west direction of the fault right. One struggles to imagine how, apart from divine revelation.

Zechariah says when the Lord Jesus is revealed standing on the Mount of Olives, the mount will split in two from east to west, one half moving north and the other south, opening up a wide valley that will stretch to Azal. In the resulting confusion, which, as you might imagine, will be tremendous, the Israelis fated for exile will rush into the newly created valley to escape, a miraculous provision that calls to mind the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea in the days of Moses.

Where is Azal?

So where is this place called Azal that will mark the southern side of the new valley created by the quake? Good question. The answer is that nobody knows for sure. The name “Azal” or “Azel” (Septuagint: “Jasol” or “Asael”) doesn’t ring any familiar biblical bells. Around AD412, Cyril of Alexandria wrote in a commentary that Azal was fairly close to Jerusalem (“a town situated at the far point of the mountain”), which makes sense if most of those fleeing will be on foot. Archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau tentatively identified Azal with a place called Wady Yasul [Nahal Azal] to the southwest of the Mount of Olives.

The map above shows a current “best guess” for the location of Azal, roughly 2.5 kilometers south and west of the Mount of Olives. [Double click on the map for a larger and more legible version.] The fault line/new valley will run west to the Mediterranean and east to the Dead Sea, a total distance of at least 60 miles at its narrowest point. If the projected location of Azal is correct, then the valley created by cleaving the Mount of Olives in half may be over two kilometers wide, depending on where the Lord Jesus makes his landing. There’s a lot of guesswork involved in all this, but lets just say the geographic impact of Christ’s return stands to be massive.

If so, he picked the right spot. Experts point out that Jerusalem’s Old City rests of layers of debris, not solid rock, and stands to be hit harder than the surrounding areas in the event of an earthquake of significant magnitude.

The Days of Uzziah

The earthquake in the days of Uzziah was evidently uniquely memorable. Zechariah was writing over 200 years later, and all he needs to say is “you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah” in order for his audience to say to themselves, “Oh yes, that was a nasty one.” Think about it: How much attention do you pay to stories over 200 years old, even if your parents are the ones telling them?

Scripture gives no explicit details about the earthquake in Uzziah’s time, though the prophet Amos also makes mention of it, calling it simply “the earthquake”. That shouldn’t surprise us: the Old Testament was written to point to Christ, not to function as the Israelite equivalent of CNN. In any case, Uzziah’s earthquake must have been a doozy if the great great great grandchildren of those who took flight were still reading and talking about it.

The one to come will be much more impressive. There’s no evidence the earthquake in Uzziah’s days created anything so spectacular as a great valley 60-odd kilometers long.

A Unique Day

Speaking of unique, the prophet finishes this section of his predictive narrative with the words “On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.”

That’s the ESV’s version, but other translations are all over the place, leaving us with a fair bit of ambiguity about the strange circumstances in which the nations of the world will come to their end, stricken in unprecedented numbers by pugnacious Jews and the miraculous plague to be described later in this chapter. Numerous passages, both Old and New, document similar cosmic signs during this period: “The sun and moon grow dark”, “The stars lose their brightness” and so on. One writer calls the visibility on that day a “supernatural curdling of the luminaries” that “prevents them from giving off light as they normally did”. Anyone who can come up with the phrase “curdling of the luminaries” demands to be quoted.

A few other versions also mention the absence of frost, but even the ESV notes the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain. What we can say with certainty is that the day will be one of a kind, with light finally coming at evening rather than dawn.

By then it should all be over.

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