PBC Forum Class for October 24, 2004
Mourning for the Good Shepherd (Zechariah 12:1-14)
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives..
The last three chapters of Zechariah contain a second "oracle," or "burden" (Heb. massa') of the prophet, corresponding to the burden of chapters 9 11. But in the first section the burden is laid upon Hadrach, a gentile nation, while in the second section the burden is laid upon Israel. This points to the chief difference between the two oracles. To go back to the words of David Baron, the first oracle concerns "the judgment through which gentile world' power over Israel is finally destroyed and Israel is endowed with strength to overcome all their [sic] enemies," while the second concerns "the judgment through which Israel itself is sifted and purged in the final conflict with the nations and transformed into the holy nation of Jehovah."'
The events of these last chapters belong to the same time period, as a careful reading shows. Characteristic of these chapters is a reiteration of the phrase "on that day," found in 12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; and 14:4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21. Since this begins as early as 12:3 and continues to the last verse of chapter 14, it is hard to miss that the events all belong together.
OUR TIMES OR END TIMES?
But to what period do they belong? And to what people? They obviously follow the first coming of Jesus Christ, for 12:10-14 describes a universal repentance in which people mourn for "the one they have pierced" (v. 10). But does that concern events shortly after Jesus' death, perhaps events accompanying the first preaching of the gospel at Pentecost or shortly thereafter? Does it refer to the expansion of Christian preaching and church growth throughout all subsequent ages? Or does it relate to something special to happen at the end of this age? Quite a few reformed thinkers pick the second possibility and see the blessing of these chapters as belonging to the church, not to Israel nationally. This is probably the majority view in reformed circles, due to the more basic conviction the people of God are one, the church being an extension of Israel, and reversion to a day of national Jewish blessing would be a step backward from the fulfillment of all prophecy Christ.
Unfortunately for this view, the chapter does not speak generally about "the people of God" or even merely about "Israel." It repeatedly stresses the names of Jerusalem and Judah. And when it talks about Israel's repentance, it does so by reference to the specific Jewish clans or tribes: "the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives" (Zachariah, 12:12 44). There probably no more specifically Jewish prophecy in the book.
But if these chapters refer to Jews specifically and not to the church as the New Testament Israel, then the events to which they refer must be future. For it is certain that there has not yet been national repentance by Israel nor an enjoyment by them of the blessing here enumerated. And if this is the case, then the battle referred to in Zechariah 12:1-9 must be the last great battle, Armageddon, and the repentance of verses 10-14 a time of national salvation prior to the second coming of the Lord. Indeed, when the chapters are viewed in that light, the repeated "on that day" is seen quite naturally to refer to that last and great day of the Lord's return in judgment. These chapters are a prophecy of the events of those end times.
Earlier I said that this is not the majority view of reformed thinkers (though it is the general view of American Evangelicalism). But it is worth adding that it has nevertheless been the view of some in the reformed camp. For example, although the publishers of the 1958 reprint of Thomas V. Moore's A Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi felt compelled to add an appendix, showing that reformed thought generally assigns these chapters to the church age, they nevertheless explored the other possibility (the one introduced here) thoroughly, concluding: "While agreeing with Chambers [Thomas W. Chambers of New York] that it is generally right to regard the church as the New Testament Israel, we are, like Moore, not satisfied that the meaning of these closing chapters of Zechariah can be fully explained in that Way." The publishers then quote seventeenth-century Scottish expositor George Hutcheson as saying: "The conversion of the Jews or Israel unto the Messiah is not to be of some few only but national of the body of that people, and there will be real repentance among many of them." Thomas Boston, the eighteenth-century Scottish Evangelical wrote in regard to Romans 11 that Paul "shows that the blindness of the Jews is only in part, and to last only to a certain time, when there shall be a national conversion, and so all Israel shall be saved. This is not meant of the spiritual Israel, for their conversion could be no mystery as this is. But as the conversion of the Gentiles themselves under the Old Testament (Ephesians 3:3 6), so is that of the Jews to the Gentiles and Jews themselves under the New Testament. And as many Jews then would not believe the one, so many Christians now believe not the other." They even quote Charles Hodge as teaching that Zechariah 12:12 is one of the "express predictions of their [the Jews'] national conversion to faith in him whom they had rejected and crucified."
If this is right, then there is no reason to discount these last chapters of Zechariah as giving a forecast of scores of events associated with the end times.
Charles Feinberg says, "The actual events, world embracing in character, which are presented include the world confederacy against Jerusalem; the victory of God's people, empowered of the Lord; the conviction of Israel nationally by the Spirit of God; the presentation of Christ as their rejected Messiah; the national Day of Atonement; the cleansing of the hearts of the nation; the purging of the land from idolatry and false prophets; parenthetically, the crucifixion of the Messiah; the time of Jacob's trouble; the partial success of the nations invading Palestine and besieging Jerusalem; the appearance of the Messiah for his people; their rescue and his coming with his saints; the changed and renovated Holy Land; the establishment of the Messianic kingdom; the punishment of the nations for their futile assault on Israel; the celebration of the kingdom feast, the Feast of Tabernacles; and the complete restoration of the people of God to a holy nation." It would be hard to find a more complete treatment of the events of the end times in all Scripture.
A THEMATIC STATEMENT
The oracle begins with a thematic statement in which God first identifies Himself and then tells what He is going to do: "This is the word of the LORD concerning Israel. The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundations of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him, declares: "I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling" (vv. 1, 2).
The identification of God as He who "stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man" is significant for several reasons. For one thing, it summarizes the creative movement of the opening chapter of Genesis in which God first makes the heavens, then creates the earth and everything on it, and finally breathes life into the man He has formed from the dust. No doubt, this identification is meant to recall that original creation and identify the God of the end events with the God of the beginning. The verse is also striking for another reason. The words translated "stretches," "lays," and "forms" are present participles. They do not say: God "stretched out the heavens," "laid the foundation of the earth" or "formed the spirit of man," referring to some past activity, but rather He is stretching, laying, and forming things now. That is, the world we see may be said to exist, not because God originally wound it up like a mechanical clock and then left it alone, but because He continually recreates (or at least preserves) it, apart from which it would instantly vanish.
It is more natural for us to say that God brought things into being by the sheer word of His power and that He now preserves what He has created. "But when we reflect," as John H. Gerstner wrote, "that we who are brought into being by him have no substance of our own which could possibly perpetuate our own being and that, as Augustine observes, the natural tendency of created being is to non-being, we may feel that God, when he upholds the universe, is constantly recreating it." Whether this is the actual case or not, there is no doubt that Zechariah rightly stresses God's continuing involvement with His universe. He created it, is with it now, and will be with it at the end. That is the significance of this thematic introduction.
The second part of the statement tells what God is going to do, He is going to make "Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling" (v. 2). Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judah will be besieged; this will be the time of Jacob's trouble. But out of that will come the judgment on the gentile nations that the next verses describe. The cup is the cup of God's wrath or judgment (cf. Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15-28; 49:12; Ezekiel, 23:31-34; Rev. 14:9, 10; 16:19).
Since the first half of Zechariah 12 tells of God's final judgment and the destruction of the gentile nations that have made war against Israel, after which they pass from history, it is worth noting that the last act of these gentile world powers is warfare. "Men since the beginning of time have sought peace," wrote General Douglas MacArthur in Reminiscences. But war man's chief legacy.
Each treaty of history was hailed by someone at some time as the road to a just and lasting disarmament, but the ink had scarcely dried on most of these treaties when the guns began to sound for the next encounter. Each new Weapon discovery--gunpowder, tanks, airplanes, missiles, nuclear weapons--has been said to make war far too horrible to contemplate. But human experience indicates that there is never a horror so great that someone will not use it to enforce his designs on others or to seize others' possessions This judgment is not merely an expression of the fading hopes of our century. It is vindicated by historic records. One of the earliest of all historical records, a Sumerian bas-relief sculpture from Babylon (c. 3000 B.C.), shows soldiers fighting in close order, wearing helmets and carrying shields. Wars fill the history of every ancient culture--Babylon, Syria, Assyria, Egypt, Phoenicia. The twenty-seven-year-long Peloponnesian War destroyed Greece at the height of the great civilization she had created during Athens' Golden Age. Rome made war a way of life, but even she was eventually defeated and overrun by barbarians. In the Middle Ages war ravaged Europe, culminating in the horrors of the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls the Thirty Years' War "the most horrible military episode in western history prior to the 20th century." By early estimates three fourths of the German-speaking peoples died in that war. But even by the more cautious estimate made later, about seven million people (one third of the population) are judged to have lost their lives. We come to modern times, and we find that World War I was even more destructive, killing approximately twenty million people. Men and women were horrified. But within one quarter of a century a similar war was fought in the same amphitheater by the same parties and for much the same reasons. World War II resulted in a loss of sixty million lives, triple the loss of the earlier conflict, while the costs quadrupled from an estimated $340 billion to an estimated $4.5 trillion.
"Since World War II there have been at least 12 limited wars in the world, 39 political assassinations, 48 personal revolts, 74 rebellions for independence, 162 social revolutions, either political, economic, racial or religious." So wrote U.S. News and World Report in the September 25, 1967, issue. By now the totals need to be increased substantially in each category. The sad lesson is that people do not learn from history and that Armageddon is always at the door.
This final war is now described in Zechariah. Apparently the nations of the world will combine in a final deadly onslaught against the state of Israel. But God will strengthen the nation to resist: "On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves" (v. 3). God will call forth strong leaders: "On that day I will make the leaders of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves" (v. 6). Indeed, He will make heroes even of the least of the people: "On that day the LORD will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them" (v. 8). In all this, God's hand will be seen. The victory over the nations will be His: "On that day I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness .... I will keep a watchful eye over the house of Judah, but I will blind all the horses of the nations" (v. 4). "On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem" (v. 9).
The judgment against the nations will be an accelerating one, to judge from the increasing intensity of the verbs used in this section: reeling (v. 2), injured (v. 3), and destroyed (v. 9).
MOURNING FOR JESUS
This battle, in which God intervenes at the crucial moment on behalf of Has people, will be the greatest victory the nation of Israel has achieved--greater even than its conquests in the day of King David, greater than the deliverance of the Maccabees, greater than the conquests of the Sixty Day War or any other. But just at the time of this, their greatest victory, God intervenes in another way to achieve His final conquest over them: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son" (v. 10).
Apart from the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, these words must remain a mystery, as they in fact are for the host of unbelieving Jewish commentators who generally try to relate the piercing to Israel and speak of mourning for her. But the Jews will not mourn for themselves. "They [that is, the Jews) will look on ... the one they [again, this must mean the Jews] have pierced." This one is someone other than the nation. But who is he? The text calls him "me," that is Jehovah. But no one can pierce or wound God ... not unless God first takes on human flesh and dwells among us. Is that the meaning? Indeed, it is, for this is what happened in Jesus Christ. He is "God with us." He is God come to die. As Isaiah declared,
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah. 53:4 6).
Perception of these truths will come about by the power of God's Holy Spirit, for it is only as God pours out "a spirit of grace and supplication" that the repentance and turning depicted in these verses occurs.
It is only by the power of God's Holy Spirit that they occur anywhere or to anyone. But where the Holy Spirit is present, there is first, a mourning for personal and national sin and second, a turning from that sin to look in faith to the Lord Jesus.
Baron writes wisely, "The ultimate literal fulfillment of [these verses] lies yet in the future, in the day for which we watch and pray, when our Lord Jesus shall, according to his promise, appear in his glory and the Jewish nation shall literally look upon him whom they have pierced and be, as it were, 'born in a day.' But there is a forestallment, so to say, in the fulfillment of this prophecy in the case of the individual even now. 'And thus,' to quote the words of an honored Hebrew Christian brother and true master of Israel, 'every Jew who, by the grace of God since the Day of Pentecost, had been brought to Christ fulfills this prediction; he looks unto him whom he has pierced. It is the look of repentance; for only a sight of the crucified Jesus shows us our sin and grief. It is the look of supplication and faith; for he only call bless and save, and he saves all who believe. It is the look of peace and adoration; for his love is infinite, unchanging and omnipotent. It is the look which never ceases and never ends; for now the veil is taken away, and we with open face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory' (Adolph Saphir).
"And as it is with the individual Jew, so it is with the individual Gentile. Yes, thanks be to God, as we all, whether Jew or Gentile, had our share in the guilt of Christ's crucifixion because of our common sin, so also may all have their share in the salvation which comes through a penitent look of faith on him whom we have pierced." May God give many that look of saving faith before the day of His announced and final judgment dawns.
A Fountain Opened in Israel (Zechariah 13:1 9)
On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.
"Awake, O Sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!"
declares the Lord Almighty.
"Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.
In the whole land," declares the LORD,
"two thirds will be struck down and perish;
yet one-third will be left in it.
This third I will bring into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, 'They are my people,'
and they will say, 'The LORD is our God.'
Chapter 13 of Zechariah is closely linked to chapter 12, so closely that we can almost wish there had been no chapter division. There is both chronological connection and even more importantly, a theological connection in which the cleansing from sin depicted in chapter 13 follows the repentance of chapter 12.
The joining of the two sections by language is most evident. The thirteenth chapter begins with the words "on that day," which occur just two verses earlier in 12:11. (They are found a total of nine times in the two chapters.) The descriptive phrase "the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem," also in 13:1, occurs in 12:10. These details show that the chapters (particularly 12:10-14 and 13:1-6) are dealing with the same people and concern the same period of time. The people are Jews. The time is the period of final repentance at the end of world history in which "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:26). Chronologically this means that the blessing of the purifying of the nation described in chapter 13 will follow the repentance of the nation described in chapter 12.
It is always the case that repentance must precede cleansing and that cleansing from sin follows genuine repentance. This is the point of 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will! hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." It is the theology of I John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
FORGIVENESS AND CLEANSING
Chapter 13 begins with a verse that must be taken by itself: "On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity."
The idea of God being a fountain to His people is found frequently in the Old Testament, but Zechariah's treatment is possibly the richest of all. Psalm 36:9 says, "For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light." Jeremiah uses the image in two key places. He says:
"My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah2:13).
"Those who turn away from you
will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the LORD,
the spring of living water" (Jeremiah 17:13))
Ezekiel uses the image positively: "1 will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel. 36:25, 26). This passage may have been in Zechariah's mind as he composed his writings, for the verses in Ezekiel relate to the end times when God will gather His people from all the countries into which they have been scattered and "bring [them] back into [their] own land" (v. 24).
Zechariah speaks of a twofold effect of the cleansing God provides. He cleanses us from sin and impurity. We could also say that He cleanses us from sin's penalty and sin's power. That is, the salvation of God's people is not merely from the condemnation due to them for their sin; it is, in addition, a progressive (and eventually a full) deliverance from the power and presence of sin in their lives.
Where does this cleansing from sin's power and defilement come from? It comes from the fountain. And what is that? Clearly, the "fountain" that will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem is the blood of the Messiah whom they have pierced.
This is what was in the mind of John the Evangelist when he called attention to the fact that blood and water issued from the side of Jesus when He was pierced by a soldier's spear at the Crucifixion. In this account, John briefly reports Jesus' death but then takes seven verses to show how His legs were not broken, as were the legs of the two thieves who were crucified with Him, and how Jesus was pierced with a spear. This was in fulfillment of prophecy, he says. The first situation was a fulfillment of Psalm 34:20, the second of Zechariah 12:10. This was remarkable in itself, of course. One of these prophecies was negative (the Savior's legs must not be broken), the other positive (the Savior's side must be pierced), but neither was what might have been expected. It was normal to break legs of crucified prisoners so that they might die quicker. It was not normal to pierce them with a spear. That each of these happened to Jesus was a remarkable fulfillment of Scripture and a clear proof that God was controlling these circumstances.
But this was not all that was involved. John was impressed with the fact that when Christ's side was pierced the piercing was accompanied by "a sudden flow of blood and water" (John 19:34). This was so remarkable that John calls attention to it, saying, "The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe" (v. 35). It is after this that he gives his two texts, including the one from Zechariah.
What did John have in mind? When he saw the surprising issue of blood and water from the side of Christ, he must have remembered (what Jew would not!) that in the Old Testament sacrificial system, blood was the appointed means of cleansing sin, and that in the temple ceremonies, water was used for ceremonial purification from uncleanness. Moreover, he would have known that the passage he was quoting from Zechariah (Zachariah 12:10, "They will look on ... the one they have pierced") is followed four verses later by the text we are considering, namely, "On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity" (13:1). Seeing the flow of blood and water and putting these two bits of information together, John must have concluded that deliverance from sin's penalty and cleansing from its defilement are to be found in the death of Jesus only.
This is the theology that William Cowper, the English poet, pictured so beautifully in his great hymn of the crucifixion.
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
E'er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved, to sin no more.
Zechariah is saying that in the last great day of national repentance by Israel that fountain will be opened to Israel nationally. But it is not necessary for you to wait for that day. In fact, it may be fatal for you to delay repentance and faith in Christ even for a moment. If you have not yet turned to look upon the Son of God who was pierced for your sin, you should cry out at once, as Augustus Toplady did:
Foul, I to the Fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
PURIFICATION OF THE LAND
No one can be forgiven and cleansed of sin in the way the opening verse of this chapter describes without that person's environment being affected. Since this cleansing is to affect the people as a whole, the environment as a whole is also to experience cleansing. David Baron says, "From the inward cleansing of the people from the guilt and moral defilement of sin, the prophet passes in verses 2 6 to the cleansing of the land and the purification of the environment in which the forgiven and sanctified people shall then live and move. Nothing that defileth shall be permitted in the restored Jewish state."
The purification of the land will cleanse it of every possible appearance of evil. Of the many that might be mentioned, however, Zechariah singles out only two evils that plagued the nation before the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria in 721 B.C. and the fall of the southern kingdom to Babylon in 586 B.C. idolatry and false prophecy.
These went together. In the age of Ahab and Jehoshaphat, when Micaiah was called to prophesy the death of Ahab by Ramoth Gilead, there were 400 false prophets but only one prophet of the Lord (1 Kings 22). Moreover, when Elijah appeared on Mount Camel, there were 450 prophets of Baal but only one Elijah (1 Kings 18). Later, in the southern kingdom, Jeremiah was plagued by the many false prophets who predicted peace for Jerusalem when actually destruction was coming(Jeremiah 6:13, 14; 8:10, 11). When times were bad, idolatry and false prophecy went together and were widespread. In the prophesied day of genuine national repentance, both will be put away.
Zechariah makes three points about this time of purification. First, the idols will be so thoroughly removed that even the memory of them will be forgotten. That is a great promise, for anyone who has ever wrestled with sin knows that the memory of sin (accompanied by a persistent desire for it often continues long after the sin itself has been repudiated. We remember Augustine's description of trying to free himself of sexual sins but finding even in his seclusion that his mind was thinking about the dancing girls in Rome. Sin lingers in the mind. But in this day, even the memory of idols will be taken away from God's people.
Second, zeal for the Lord will be so great that the people will no longer even tolerate the existence of false prophets. Zechariah makes this point by saying that if a false prophet should emerge, his own father and mother would be the first to see that he is executed in obedience to Deuteronomy 13:6 10 and 18:20. "If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wile you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, 'Let us go and worship other gods' (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Dent. 13:6 10). "But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death" (Dent. 18:20).
Third, Zechariah shows that even those who have been false prophets will be so ashamed of their past prophesying that they will do everything possible to deny and hide it. They will put away their hair garments and return to their farms, claiming always to have been farmers.
Verse 6 is difficult, but it is generally taken to refer to wounds inflicted on themselves by false prophets in moments of prophetic fervor or frenzy. This was the case with the prophets of Baal who, we are told, "slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed" (1 Kings 18:28). Apparently, in Zechariah's hypothetical situation, wounds like these are noticed on one who had formerly been a prophet of one of the idol gods. When they are pointed out, the false prophet denies their origin, saying "The wounds I was given at the house of my friends." (This may mean that he received the wounds elsewhere, perhaps in his family as a youth or child. Or it may be an ironic reference to the house of the idols, which he used to regard as "friends" but no longer does.)
THE SMITTEN SHEPHERD
Having spoken concretely of the repentance and purifying that is to take place among the Jews in the days prior to the consummation of all things, Zechariah now introduces one of those flashbacks that are common in his prophecy and would be taken as an error in chronology if one were not aware that his concerns at these points are theological rather than chronological. The clearest example of this was in chapter 9, where verses describing the coming of Christ to Jerusalem riding on a donkey come before those describing the wars of the Maccabees. Chronologically this is out of order. But theologically it is in perfect order, since it describes the true King immediately after verses depicting the great Greek king, Alexander of Macedonia. It is the same here. Having spoken of Israel's repentance through looking to the one they had pierced, Zechariah now glances back to that piercing to analyze it theologically. Having spoken of the false prophets, Zechariah now speaks of the true and reliable Prophet, who fulfills all prophecies.
The most remarkable thing about these verses is that they describe God the Father as Himself striking the Savior, just as Isaiah did in the well-known fifty-third chapter of his prophecy ("we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted," v. 4; "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all," v. 6; "it was the LORD'S will to crush him and cause him to suffer," v. 10). Zechariah says:
"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!"
declares the LORD Almighty.
"Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered" (Zecharah13:7).
This would not be so remarkable if it were spoken against the three false shepherds of Zechariah 11:8 or the foolish shepherd of 11:15 17. In fact, with no textual warrant whatever, some critical scholars have rearranged the text to place Zechariah 13:7-9 at the end of chapter 11--for just this reason. Judgment upon the wicked or derelict shepherds seems proper. But this is not a judgment against a false shepherd, but against one whom the verses themselves say is "close" to God and whom God Himself identifies as "my shepherd."
Indeed, it is even stronger than this. For the words translated "close to me" are actually parallel to "my shepherd" and literally mean "my fellow" in the sense of "my close relation" or "blood associate," The great Bible commentator C. F. Keil writes of this word: "God would not apply this epithet to any godly or ungodly man whom he might have appointed shepherd over a nation. The idea of nearest one (or fellow) involves not only similarity in vocation, but community of physical or spiritual descent, according to which he whom God calls his neighbor cannot be a mere man, but can only be one who participates in the divine nature, or is essentially divine "
The solution to this problem is the incarnation, and the meaning of the verse is the Atonement. It is God the Father striking His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in our place as our sin-bearer. It Is Jesus suffering for us in order that we might be delivered from the wrath of God against sin and be released to serve the Lord effectively.
In Zechariah's treatment of this passage, the immediate consequence of the smiting of the shepherd is the scattering of the sheep, which is the way Jesus referred to it prior to His arrest and crucifixion: "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered"' (Matt. 26:31; cf. Mark 14:27). This was a first and immediate fulfillment, but its fullness has been seen throughout history in the scattering of Israel, which is to continue until the time of Israel's regathering at the end of time.
This scattering is to be intense and filled with suffering. In that day, "two-thirds will be struck down and perish" (v. 8). One can argue that this has already been fulfilled. Probably as many as two thirds of the Jews living in Palestine perished at the time of the Roman victory in AD. 70, when Jerusalem and Masada were overthrown, and at the time of the punishments associated with the Bar Kochba revolt a generation later. During the Middle Ages there were intense purges against the Jews, so much so that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, by reliable computation, there were only about one million Jews left in the entire world. Hitler exterminated six million Jews during World War II. Yet in spite of these terrible purges, there will be even worse slaughter in the final day, described as "Jacob's trouble" (cf. Jeremiah 30:7).
Yet the grace of God shines through even here. For although two-thirds of the people may be cut off and perish yet one-third will remain and will b purified by God for His own purposes
"In the whole land," declares the LORD.
"two thirds will be struck down and perish;
yet one-third will be left in it,
This third I will bring into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, 'They are my people,'
and they will say,
'The LORD is our God " (vv. 8, 9).
This is probably also the meaning of the sentence, "I will turn my hand against the little ones" (v. 7). In English it sounds as if God's judgment is going to be turned against children as well as adults. But the Hebrew actually says, "I will cause my hand to come back to (or upon) the little ones"--that is, God's hand was removed from these people, but now His hand will come back to them in blessing. If this is the meaning, "little ones" probably means "those who make themselves little" or "are humble." it is a promise of blessing upon those who do look to Him whom they have pierced and turn from sin. The text says that God has been preserving a remnant of the Jewish people so that they might do just that.
About one hundred years ago the king of Prussia, Frederick the Great, was having a discussion with his chaplain about the truth of the Bible. Frederick had become skeptical and unbelieving, largely through the influence of the infidel Voltaire. So he said to his chaplain, "If your Bible is really true, it ought to be capable of very brief proof. So often when I have asked for proof of the inspiration of the Bible I have been given some enormous volume that I have neither the time nor disposition to read. If your Bible is really from God, you should be able to demonstrate the fact simply. Give me the proof of the inspiration of the Bible in a word."
The chaplain replied, "Your majesty, it is possible for me to answer your request quite literally. I can give you the proof you ask for in a single word."
Frederick looked at the chaplain with some amazement and asked, "What is this magic word that carries such a weight of proof?"
The chaplain answered, "Israel, Your Majesty."
The continued existence of the Jewish people in spite of centuries of persecution is one proof of the Bible's inspiration and of the existence of the God who has promised to preserve them and bring them to a time of great national blessing in the last days.
"My PEOPLE, My GOD"
The last lines of this chapter--almost the last of the Book of Zechariah and close to the last lines of the Minor Prophets--carry us back to the prophecy of Hosea, which we saw at the beginning of these studies. It is likely that Zechariah is thinking of it explicitly.
Hosea had been telling of his marriage, which was a pageant ordained by God, upon which the message of the book turns. He had been told to marry a wife who proved unfaithful to him, but after they were married and before that happened, his wife had three children. Each of these children was given a symbolic name. The first was Jezreel, which means "scattered," because God was going to scatter the people all over the world, as Hosea, Zechariah, and other prophets foretold. The second child was called Lo-Ruhamah, which means "not loved" or "not pitied," because a time was coming when God was no longer going to have pity on the people due to their unbelief. The third child was called Lo-Ammi, which means "not my people," because they would no longer be God's people in any special sense. It is a bleak picture but one that accurately describes the past thousands of years of Jewish history: "scattered," "not loved," "not my people."
But then, as Hosea tells his story, we learn that God is going to regather His people and turn them to Himself once again. The names of the children will be changed. Jezreel will be changed from Jezreel meaning "scattered," to Jezreel meaning "planted"; for God will plant the Jews in their land once again. Lo-Ruhamah, meaning "not loved" or "not pitied," will be changed to Ruhamah, meaning "loved" or "pitied"; for God will show pity once more. And Lo-Ammi, meaning "not my people," will be changed to Ammi, meaning "my people"; for in that day they will again become the people of the living God (cf. Hos. 1:10).
Hosea concludes, "I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God' " (Hos. 2:23).
These are almost the identical words with which Zechariah 13
doses: "I will say, 'They are my people,' and they will say,
'The LORD is our God'" (v. 9). But notice: this comes in
Zechariah, after the destruction of the northern kingdom by the
Assyrians and the destruction of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians.
This comes after the Babylonian captivity. By now many new scatterings
have taken place. But God is faithful to His promise. Nothing
can ever separate us from the love of such a great God.
Consummation of All Things (Zechariah 14:1-21)
A day of the Lord is coining when your plunder will be divided among you. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will he captured, the houses ransacked, and file women raped. Half of file city will go into exile, hut the rest of the people will not be take,, front the city.
Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will he split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of file mountain moving north and half "loving south,. You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah,. Then the LORD my God will crone, and all file holy ones with him.
On that day there will be no light, no cold or frost. 11 will be a unique day, without daytime or nighttime--a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will he light.
On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.
The LORD will be king over the whole earth,. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.
On that day HOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD'S house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty.
It is not very often that a person finds Martin Luther at a loss for words, but there is something close to this in his handling of Zechariah 14. Luther did two commentaries on this prophet: one in Latin, which was published first, and a second in German, which he may have intended as a definitive edition of the first. In the first of these there is no treatment of chapter 14. The manuscript just stops at 13:9, with no explanation. In the second commentary, chapter 14 is briefly treated. But it begins with the words: "Here, in this chapter, 1 give up. For I am not sure what the prophet is talking about." This may explain why there is no commentary in the earlier version!
Not all commentators admit to being as baffled as Luther. But most acknowledge that in a difficult book this chapter is probably the most difficult of all--or at least the final chapters of Zechariah (chaps. 12-14) are most difficult.
The chief problem is that nothing in this chapter fits historical events. So either the chapter is descriptive of events yet future, or it is to be considered figuratively as describing this present age. H. C. Leupold takes chapter 14 in this second sense. "Our verses do not, therefore, apply to any one situation. They do not describe a siege, capture and captivity which actually occurred. By means of a figure they describe a situation which obtains continually through New Testament times. God's people shall continually be antagonized and suffer bitter adversity at the hands of their foes and shall in consequence be brought low; but there shall always be an imperishable remnant, and that not so extremely small.'"
This will not do. Scholars who apply these prophecies to God's people in this age take "Israel" as meaning "true Israel (or the church)." Yet when a statement of judgment occurs, as in the prophecy that two-thirds of the people will be struck down or cut off (Zacariah 13:8), they usually view them as literal Jews and the land as literal Palestine. When it is a question of a prophecy which has already been fulfilled, such as the piercing of the Messiah (Zachariah 12:10) or the scattering of the sheep (Zachariah 13:7), they take it literally. It is inconsistent to do this and then give spiritual meanings to portions of the book which have not been fulfilled. If one portion of these last chapters refers to literal events, the other portions must refer to literal events too, even if, from our particular viewpoint, we are not able to explain all the details accurately.
I think David Baron is right when he says, "We have a great and solemn prophecy which will yet be literally fulfilled in the future. And when it is objected by some of the modern writers that the literal fulfillment is 'impossible,' because it would involve not only national upheavals, but physical convulsions of nature, our answer is that this is just what the prophet declares as most certainly to take place. We should treat the chapter for what it teaches and leave the possibility (or impossibility) of these things in God's hands, knowing that for God "all things are possible." (Matt. 19:26).
THE LAST BATTLE
The place to begin is by noting that the first verses of Zechariah 14 obviously amplify upon the last three verses of chapter 13 and probably also carry us back to the battle with which the oracle (chaps. 12-14) begins. In other words, these chapters belong together, which is what we have already concluded on the basis of the sixteen occurrences of the phrase "on that day" spread throughout them. The ending of chapter 13 spoke of the destruction of two-thirds of the people and the preservation and purification of the remaining one-third. This is consistent with the sacking of Jerusalem described in 14:2 and the preservation of a remnant described in 14:5. In general terms, 14:1-5 is also consistent with 12:1 9, although the earlier passage does not say that Jerusalem will be overrun before God intervenes to save it and its people.
Next we will need to see precisely what the passage teaches. There are a number of items. First, the passage presupposes that there will be a Jewish nation centered about Jerusalem in the last days. Today, with the existence of the modern state of Israel a reality, this does not seem to be terribly remarkable. But we forget how improbable it seemed for the thousands of years that passed between scattering of the Jews by the Romans the first Christian century and establishing of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
Before World War II many commentators mocked even the possibility of a reestablished Israel. But David Baron, whom I have been quoting favorably and who wrote in 1918 (between the world wars), predicted the regathering of the Jews on the basis of this prophecy: "It seems from Scripture that in relation to Israel and the land there will be a restoration, before the second advent of our Lord, of very much the same state of things as existed at the time of his first advent, when the threads of God's dealing with them nationally were finally dropped, not to be taken up again 'until the times of the Gentiles shall be fulfilled.' There was at that time a number of Jews in Palestine representative of the nation; but compared with the number of their brethren, who were already a diaspora among the nations, they were a minority, and not in a politically independent condition. So it will be again. There will be at first, as compared with the whole nation, only a representative minority in Palestine, and a Jewish state will be probably formed, either under the suzerainty of one of the Great Powers, or under international protection... Around this nucleus a large number more from all parts of the world will in all probability soon be gathered." Since the conditions for the events described in Zechariah 14 seem to be receiving a literal fulfillment, why should we not expect that the events themselves will be literal when they unfold?
Second, the chapter speaks of a gathering of the nations of the world against the Jews and Jerusalem. We do not know what the immediate occasion of scattering of the Jews by the Romans in this invasion might be, but we can imagine any number of scenarios in light of current world politics, not to mention the possibility that world conditions could change substantially before such events happen. It is helpful to remember that Zechariah 14 is not the only passage in the Bible to predict a great final battle in the last days. Ezekiel describes it in chapters 38 and 39 of his prophecy. There is another description in Daniel 11. In these passages the kings of the earth unite against God's people, but God intervenes and they are soundly defeated. God's victory is followed by the great golden age.
Third, at the apex of this destruction--when the nations are dividing the spoil of the city and the inhabitants of Jerusalem are being led away to exile--God appears to fight for His people as He did many times previously. The text says,
"Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will 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" (vv. 3-5).
Moore has a puzzling comment at this point, saying, "It is impossible for us to take this whole passage literally, for God cannot literally place his feet on the Mount of Olives." But surely God has already done it in the person of Jesus Christ. What is more, the angels who appeared at Christ's ascension said, "Men of Galilee this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). What is more natural than that the second coming of Christ should be at this place and at the moment of a desperate need on the part of the Jewish people?
BLESSING ON THE LAMB
Following Zechariah's description of the final great battle and the Lord's return, the prophet zeros in on the blessings of the age which follows. These fall into four categories, focusing on: (1) light (vv. 6, 7); (2) water (v. 8); (3) the king (v. 9); and (4) the city (vv. 10, 11).
1. Light. It is hard to tell how far Zechariah's references to light and dark, cold and frost, day and evening are to be taken literally and how far figuratively. But in view of similar descriptions in the Book of Revelation it may be that they are to be taken as actual fact. Zechariah says, "On that day there will be no light, no cold or frost. It will be a unique day, without daytime or nighttime--a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will be light" (vv. 6, 7). In Revelation heaven is described as being filled with light: "The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it .... There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light" (Rev. 21:23, 24; 22:5). If this is not a literal light of a messianic age (or heaven), the passage is saying that "in the hour of deepest gloom and blackness God causes the bright light of his deliverance to shine forth for the distressed ones."
2. Water. In a semiarid country such as Palestine, water was always a great blessing. Hence, in the golden age, water will flow forth abundantly from Jerusalem, according to Zechariah. "On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter" (v. 8).
In view of the convulsions of the land which both the earlier and later verses describe, it is not inconceivable that this too is quite literal. The earthquake of verse 4 (cf. v. 5) that splits the Mount of Olives and levels other portions of the land (v. 10) could conceivably cause a literal river to flow forth from the environs of Jerusalem. But even if that is the case, it is clearly also a visible symbol of the mighty river of God's salvation, which will flow to the nations from Jerusalem during this period. Ezekiel describes a river "coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east" (Ezekiel. 47:1; cf. vv. 1 12). John also describes the river in the Book of Revelation: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city" (Rev. 22:1, 2). God is the source of this river, for He is the source of all spiritual blessings the nations need.
3. The King. "Thy kingdom come." Thus have Christian people prayed singly and in unison ever since the Lord first taught His disciples to pray in that manner. The kingdom has come--wherever the gospel has been preached and men and women have responded to the message of the cross. Still, we continue to look for that day when Christ will have 'destroyed all dominion, authority and power" (1 Cor. 15:24) and will have 'everything under his feet" (v. 27). This is what Zechariah describes. "The Logo Will be king over the whole earth. On that day there wilt be one LORD, and his name the only name" (Zachariah 14:9).
4. The City. Strictly speaking, the fourth blessing is upon the entire land, which, says the chapter, "will become like the Arabah," that is, the flat fruitful plain of the Jordan. But the focus is Jerusalem. By contrast to the flatness of the land round about, Jerusalem will be lifted up as the holy mountain of God (vv. 10, 11). This is the vision also seen by Isaiah:
"Behold, I will create new heavens and a
The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create,s
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more ....
"Before they call I will answer; while they
are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food.
They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain" (Isaiah 65:17 19, 24, 25).
Isaiah shows that the outward changes in the land are symbolic of what will also be spiritually true. Evil will be eliminated from the city. God will be with His people, and salvation will flow like a stream from Zion.
JUDGMENT ON THE NATIONS (Zechariah 14:1 21)
When we review the blessing of God upon Israel and the land of Palestine, we think of the condition of those who resist God's rule. This is brought before us in the next section of the chapter (vv. 12 19).
It involves a strange description of God's judgment. On the one hand, God will bring a particularly grim plague on the nations that fought against Jerusalem: "Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day men will be stricken by the LORD with great panic. Each man will seize the hand of another, and they will attack each other.... A similar plague will strike the horses and mules, the camels and donkeys, and all the animals in those camps" (vv. 12, 13, 15). Chronologically these verses follow verse 3, and perhaps also belong with the opening section of chapter 12. The nations who had come up against Jerusalem had looked on her in haughty scorn; hence the judgment affecting the soldiers' eyes. They had spoken against God, like the field commander of Sennacherib before the armies of Hezekiah; hence the judgment on their tongues. The mention of a "plague" recalls the judgments of God against Egypt at the start of Israel's history as a nation.
On the other hand, over against this particularly grim plague is a description of blessing for those nations that learn righteousness and pay their proper homage to God. Zechariah says, "Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the king, the Logo Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles" (v. 16). Not all will want to do this; apparently the hearts of many will remain unchanged. God will withhold rain from those who refuse and bring other judgments on them (vv. 17 19). Those who obey will participate with Israel in the material and spiritual blessings of that day.
HOLY TO THE LORD
The prophecy ends with an emphasis upon holiness: "On that day HOLY To THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the Logo's house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Low Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord Almighty" (vv. 20, 21). What is Zechariah talking about here? Why horse bells and cooking pots? The point is that the people and city will be so holy that even these insignificant things will be fully dedicated to the Lord. All of life will have the glory and enjoyment of God as its object.
Have you ever thought of holiness in terms of your destiny as a child of God? You are not holy now. You are sinful; the more you live, the more you will be aware of it. But your destiny is holiness. God has determined that we are to be holy through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We find this determination four times in Leviticus: "Be holy, because I am holy" (two times, Lev. 11:44, 45), "Be holy because 1, the Logo your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2), and "Be holy, because I am the Logo Your God" (Lev. 20:7). Peter writes: "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy"' (1 Peter 1:15). The author of Hebrews speaks of "holiness," without which "no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Our destiny is to be holy--like the Lord.
We think of things relationally today. Because God is a person and we are like Him in having personalities, we think of our destiny in terms of our relationship to God. We look forward to the day when we will be able to express our love to Him fully and know the full measure of His love to us. This is not wrong, of course; we are persons, and our future is to be enfolded in the all-embracing love of God. But this is not the way the Bible speaks of our destiny. It is not the love relationship that is emphasized. The Bible emphasizes that which is the basis of all other experiences: holiness. The reason why our relationship to God is not all it should be is that we are not holy. The reason why our relationships with other people are not all they should be is that we are sinful. We need holiness. On the day that we pass from earth to heaven we will be holy, for we will be like Jesus, since we will see Him as He is (I John 3:2).
Then we must strive to be holy now. That is what I John 3 emphasizes. It says that we will be like Jesus (v. 2). but immediately after this it says, with reference to this present life, "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (v. 3). We emphasize so many other things. Instead of these, we must find and fulfill God's emphasis, knowing that one day HOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on us and we will be the Lord's holy people forever.
(Notes from James M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, Kregel Publications, 1986)
AND THEN COMES THE END, by Ray C. Stedman
This last section of the book of Isaiah covers the final events of world history, and closely parallels the book of Revelation. The book of Isaiah is in many ways a miniature Bible. It divides like the Bible. The Bible has 66 books, and Isaiah has 66 chapters. The Old Testament has 39 books, and the first division of Isaiah has 39 chapters. The New Testament has 27 books, and the second half of Isaiah has 27 chapters. The theme of the last of Isaiah is the theme of the last of the Bible: the end!
Matthew quotes the words of Jesus, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to all the earth as a witness to every nation, and then the end shall come," (cf, Matt 24:14). It is that end that Isaiah brings before us now in these closing chapters of his prophecy, beginning at Chapter 59. This chapter answers the question many are asking today, "Why is the world in such a mess? If God is really running this world, why is he doing such a poor job of it?" Some feel even they could do a better job. God's answer to these questions is given in the opening words of chapter 59:
Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear ["It is not my failure," God says]; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. (Isa 59:1-3)
The problem is not with God, but with man. The passage goes on to describe the wickedness of Israel particularly (since this chapter is addressed to the nation), and beyond that, to the whole world. The Apostle Paul quotes Verses 7-8 in Romans 3 to show that this applies to the whole race of men.
Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. [He has been reading the statistics of carnage on our highways.] The way of peace they know not, and there is no justice in their paths. (Isa 59:7-8a)
That is an excellent description of what theologians call "the depravity of man." God says there is something wrong with us. It is utter foolishness to deny it. At the close of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill, a great historian in his own right, penned these words,
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. Under sufficient stress: starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up.
That eloquently confirms what Isaiah declares. The problem is not so much the presence of human sin, for God has an answer for that, set forth in Chapter 53 of Isaiah, in the marvelous story of One who was "wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed," (Isaiah 53:5). Yes, God has a full answer to the dilemma of human evil, but the problem that separates man from God is an unwillingness to admit to that evil. That is what keeps God from acting on our behalf. If you come with a humble, repentant heart, you can get anything from God; but if you come with a self-justifying excuse, God will give you nothing.
Man is strangely reluctant to admit that he is contributing to the problems he faces. People seem to be blind to the fact that selfish ways and self-centered actions and attitudes are directly connected with the terrible evils that flood our land and fill our newspapers today. It is very difficult to get them to accept the fact that God's wrath comes upon mankind because of our wrong attitudes and actions. This is why so much evil abounds -- drug abuse, child abuse, wife beating, incest, homosexuality, pornography, and other terrible things. Strangely, we seem to be incapable of doing anything about these. They only worsen from generation to generation. As Churchill has pointed out, there is no improvement as the centuries have rolled by. The reason is that we are unwilling to admit our evil and this is oftentimes true of Christians as well as the world.
At Verse 9 of this chapter, however, there is a dramatic change. A group comes forth who do admit their part in the problem. They are the remnant of Israel, the tiny believing band of Jews who do acknowledge that they have gone wrong.
Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we look for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight among those in full vigor, we are like dead men. (Isaiah 59:9-10)
What a strange blindness permeates all of human society today! The confession continues.
We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we look for justice, but there is none; for salvation but it is far from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. (Isaiah 59:11-13)
That is the real problem. But what an honest confession is here, a full acknowledgment that the problem is with you and me -- not God! There is an immediate divine response to that confession:
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one intervene; then his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle. (Isaiah 59:15b-17)
This is looking on to the day, described in the book of Revelation and other places, when God will begin to judge evil in human hearts. God acts immediately to this end. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord.
This is the second return of Jesus, when he comes to Israel to deliver them from their evil. As Israel's Redeemer, he comes to Zion (Jerusalem) to begin his restorative work. Chapter 60 is another glowing description of the blessing of Israel after its restoration. This is a beautiful account of what prophecy students call the "millennium," the thousand years of blessing that follows the restoration of Israel to its God. It begins with a summons to the nation to stand up and rejoice in its deliverance.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isa 60:1-3)
I hope you will read for yourself this beautiful poetic description of millennial blessings, when Israel will be the head of the nations. The chapter closes with language very reminiscent of the book of Revelation.
Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land for ever, the shoot of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the Lord; and in its time I will hasten it. (Isaiah 60:20-22)
All of God's promises to Israel will be fulfilled to the letter. These great passages in Isaiah look forward to that time of earthly glory, when Israel shall be the foremost of the nations. It shall all come to pass, exactly as recorded here. Chapter 61 is a flashback to the days of the Messiah's first appearance. It opens with his own words.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion -- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 6 1:1-3)
Luke's gospel records that Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth on one occasion, as was his custom, and asked for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled it until he found the place where these words are written. Turning to this very spot, he read this passage about the Spirit coming upon him, anointing him, and that he was called to preach the gospel, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, etc. He stopped reading in the middle of a sentence, after the comma following the words, "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he closed the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, sat down, and said, "This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your hearing."
Note carefully where he stopped reading. He did not go on to read, "and the day of vengeance of our God," because when he first came he introduced "the day of God's favor," the day when God withholds his judgment.
This is the answer to the question people are asking, "Why doesn't God do something?" The answer is, because he is giving people everywhere a chance! When he starts judging, he will judge the whole world -- everybody in it, without exception. Only those who have already bowed to his will, will escape the penalty of that judgment. Then he will begin "the day of vengeance of our God," the phrase Jesus did not read that day in the synagogue. This comma has been called "the longest comma in history." "The year of the Lord's favor" now covers almost two thousand years of time, but it will be followed by "the day of vengeance of our God."
Notice the contrast between "the year of his grace," and "the day of vengeance." God does not like vengeance. He does not delight in judgment. Isaiah calls it "his strange work." But it must be done eventually, though it will be kept as brief as possible. This is what prophecy records as "the time of the end." The rest of the chapter and all of Chapter 62 go on again to describe the restoration of Israel. All of this applies to us spiritually, as a description of our permanent relationship with God and describing the security of the believer. Hear Verses 3-4 of Chapter 62:
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isa 62:3-4)
Those are specific promises to Israel that have spiritual application to us. The last verse of Chapter 62 speaks to this as well:
They shall be called The holy people, The redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought out, a city not forsaken. (Isaiah 62:12)
This is to be the ultimate fate of Jerusalem, but describes our status in the eyes of our Lord. We are "accepted in the Beloved," (Ephesians 1:6).
Chapter 63 is another picture of the judgment of God. It portrays the Messiah coming to Jerusalem from the south and entering into a dialog with the believers there. He comes from Edom, in Southern Jordan, with blood-soaked garments.
Those who see him coming ask, Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he that is glorious in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? (Isaiah 63:1a)
Jesus answers, "It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save" (Isaiah 63:1b)
They respond, Why is thy apparel red, and thy garments like his that treads in the wine press? (Isaiah 63:2)
His answer comes, "I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my raiment. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption has come." (Isa 63:3-4)
The parallel to this is found in Chapter 14 of the book of Revelation, where the apostle sees an angel coming out from heaven, having a great sickle in his hand,
Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has power over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who has the sharp sickle, "Put in your sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." So the angel swung his sickle on the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God, and the wine press was trodden outside the city and blood flowed from the wine press as high as a horse's bridle for one thousand six hundred stadia. (Rev 14:18-20)
That measurement is about two hundred miles -- which is the distance from Lebanon in the north down to Edom in the south of Israel. The whole land will be covered with blood from the great battle of Armageddon, the warfare that ends the struggles of earth, as depicted in other Scriptures. This is a terrible picture of the treading of the wine press. The "harvest" always deals with Gentiles, while the "wine press" is always a picture of God's judgment of Israel. This will be "the time of Jacob's trouble" which Jeremiah mentions. Chapter 64 is the response of the remnant of Israel, the believing Jews, to this. Their cry is a prayer,
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence -- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil -- to make thy name known to thy adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at thy presence! (Isaiah 64:1-2)
They are asking God for judgment, crying, "We know this will be terrible, but it is the only way. So come, Lord, do your work." Hasn't this been our cry at times, when we have seen the terrible things that are going on around us: "Lord, come and end this terrible scene, at whatever cost"? This, then, is the prayer of the remnant, the earnest pleading for relief. The prayer rises out of an awareness of the majesty and the uniqueness of God, exemplified in their words in verse 4,
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
Paul quotes those verses in First Corinthians (2:9-10), saying these unrevealed things have been revealed to us by the Spirit. If you want to see God, and know God, then search his Word. Study it, think it through. Let the majesty of God be taught to you by the Spirit of God, for that is what he has come to do.
God replies to all this in Chapters 65 and 66, which close the book of Isaiah. He first reminds Israel that he has always been available to them, if they were only ready to turn to him. He proves this by pointing out that he has been available even to the Gentiles; not only to the chosen people but also even to the Gentiles.
I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here am I, here am I," to a nation that did not call on my name. (Isaiah 65:1)
He is speaking of the Gentiles. But what about Israel? Of them, he says,
I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, (Isaiah 65:2-3a)
They are idolaters, following other gods. That is what is wrong with them. More than that,
...who say, "Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am set apart from you." (Isaiah 65:5a)
Literally, the words are, "I am holier than thou." This is where that phrase comes from. If there is any sin in the Bible that is categorized as being worse than any other sin, it is the sin of self-righteousness! That is the sin of Israel. It is also the sin of the church. Like the Pharisees, we often draw our garments around ourselves, crying, "We would never do that!" Remember that the hardest words of Jesus were uttered against the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Not one of us knows what we would do, given certain circumstances, if we thought we could get away with it or everybody else was doing it. That is the terrible evil of the human heart.
But after the time of God's judgment of Israel, God will fulfill all his promises. Once again we have described here the beautiful conditions of the millennium, beginning with the promise ultimately of a new heaven and a new earth:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the child shall die a hundred years old, (Isa 65:17-20a)
That is, when a child is one hundred years old he is still a mere child. The longevity of the ancient world will come back again.
...and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, (Isaiah 65:20b-22a)
What a beautiful picture of the restoration of the earth! Isaiah closes with words describing the change that shall occur in the animal kingdom, a description we have already seen in Chapter 11 of this prophecy.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain. (Isaiah 66:25)
The final chapter continues the dialog between Jehovah and Israel. The fascinating thing about this chapter is that it is a direct reply to the yearning on the part of many in Israel today to rebuild the temple upon Mount Moriah. As you know, some of us have had a very close association with the Jews who are committed to rebuilding a temple upon that mount. They are determined to do this and they are working every way they can to accomplish it. But God has a word for them, which we find in the opening words of this chapter,
Thus says the Lord: "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." (Isaiah 66:1-2)
It is not that the temple will not be built. It will be. And animal sacrifices will once again be offered in it as they were offered in the days of our Lord. But God is saying that these are all worthless if he is not enshrined in the heart. He goes on to describe in scathing language what animal sacrifices will mean without that heart worship.
"He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog's neck; he who presents a cereal offering, like him who offers swine's blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like him who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations." (Isaiah 66:3)
We have seen all through this book how God hates phony religion. He hates outward ritual that has no inner reality! This will be true of those days as well. Let me point out one word he utters here to the true believers in Israel. Verse 5,
Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: "Your brethren who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, 'Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy'; [That is sarcastic language.] but it is they who shall be put to shame." (Isaiah 66:5)
Then the most amazing wonder of all times is unveiled in Verses 7-9:
"Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her sons. Shall I bring to the birth and not cause to bring forth? says the Lord; shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb? says your God." (Isaiah 66:9)
What is this all about? The most amazing thing that has happened in human history is that Israel produced a son, Jesus, before she travailed in labor. The great tribulation and the judgment of Israel described here is as a woman in labor, and yet Israel will come to the realization that nineteen hundred years before she entered into her labor, she had already had a son! This is the great wonder of the age. God declares that people will say, "Who has ever heard such a thing, that a nation then 'shall be born in a day.'" When Jesus returns, and the nation sees who it is, those will believe in him will be made righteous and they shall flood the earth with the knowledge of God. Israel shall be God's witnesses in that day.
The closing verses are a final description of the restoration of that nation, and promise anew of the new heavens and the new earth still to come:
"For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me," says the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22-23)
This is a millennial scene. Even during those times when all the nations, led by Israel, shall come up to Jerusalem to worship, God will have provided a memorial for them, reminding them of the cost of disobedience and the terrible fate of unbelief.
"They shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." (Isaiah 66:24)
So the great prophecy comes to an end. We are left with the question, "Do we truly know this loving, patient God, terrible in his justice, awful in his might and power, yet so earnestly loving in his attempt to bring men to himself?"
That is the great question. The name Isaiah means "Jehovah saves." That is what God wants. This great prophecy is a testimony to the fact that, "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all men should come to the knowledge of repentance," (2 Peter 3:9).
Let me close with these words from C.S. Lewis,
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that, and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison, you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.
Date: March 2, 1986. November 18, 2023.
"Plainly, Scripture is the only reliable guide we have to function properly as a human in a broken world. Philosophy and psychology give partial insights, based on human experience, but they fall far short of what the Word of God can do. It is not intended to replace human knowledge or effort, but is designed to supplement and correct them. Surely the most hurtful thing pastors and leaders of churches can do to their people is to deprive them of firsthand knowledge of the Bible. The exposition of both Old and New Testaments from the pulpit, in classrooms and small group meetings is the first responsibility of church leaders. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" and must be found faithful to the task of distribution. This uniqueness of Scripture is the reason that all true human discovery in any dimension must fit within the limits of divine disclosure. Human knowledge can never outstrip divine revelation." (Ray Stedman, Hebrews, IVP Commentary)
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Updated November 18, 2023.