For some time, I have been working on a commentary on Zechariah 14. It’s tough going. There aren’t that many good commentaries on Zechariah that aren’t dispensational. Dispensationalists have an advantage because in their view everything happens after the so-called rapture of the church. All other interpretations must find historical markers to account for their interpretation. Some argue for a second-century BC Maccabean fulfillment. This is probably the most popular non-dispensational view that finds its fulfillment in historical events. Al Wolters lists seven views in his article “Zechariah 14: A Dialogue with the History of Interpretation.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 13 (2002), 39–56.
An idealist approach understands the prophecy as a symbolic description of the trials and tribulations and final victory of the church throughout history. “Verses 1–2 refer to ‘the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, but in the rest of the chapter Jerusalem is taken as a type or symbol of the New Testament church.’”
A preterist interpretation has some history behind it. “[Johannes] Marckius [1656–1731] doubted not but that the beginning of this chapter is a prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and he quotes Jerome [c. 347–420], Cyril [c. 376–444], and Theodoret [c. 393–458/446] as having expressed the same opinion.” I’ve taken a preterist approach.
In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south.
Mountains are a prominent theme in Zechariah’s prophecy (1:8; 1:10–11; 4:7; 6:1; 8:3; 14:4–5). Zechariah 14:4–5 is used by futurists to support their claim that Jesus will return from heaven with his “raptured” saints and touch down on the Mount of Olives and set up His millennial kingdom in Jerusalem. Of course, one of the problems in making Zechariah 14:4–5 refer to Christ’s second physical coming to earth is the absence of any reference to Him coming down to stand on the Mount of Olives or describing a previously raptured church following Him after a seven-year period of tribulation.
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Everything mentioned in the discourse takes place on earth. The verse states simply “in that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives.” We’re not told by Zechariah how this person would get to the Mount of Olives. David ascended the “Mount of Olives and wept as he went, and his head was covered, and he walked barefoot” (2 Sam. 15:30). He got there on foot. Since we know that Jesus came to earth (John 1:14) and stood on the Mount of Olives, it’s logical to conclude that the reference to the Mount of Olives refers to Jesus’ first coming (Matt. 21–25). The verse does not say that this person will come on a cloud and touch down on the Mount of Olives.
Why skip the entire New Testament to propose a second physical coming to the Mount of Olives? Doesn’t the angel say that Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:11) sometime in the future and this will be a fulfillment of Zechariah 14:4–5? It does not. The passage says that Jesus will “come in just the same way as” He was seen going into heaven. He went up in a cloud and He would return on a cloud. Jesus did this in His judgment coming against Jerusalem before that generation passed away (Matt. 24:1–34) like the way God came to Egypt—on a cloud where He is depicted physically so that the idols would “tremble at His presence” (Isa. 19:1).
The New Testament gives us a hint about when and how this was fulfilled. At the point of Jesus’ death, the veil in the temple “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). This event could be seen from the Mount of Olives where Jesus was crucified. Notice the content of the rest of the verse: “and the earth shook, and the rocks were split,” the very thing Zechariah predicts.
Several early Christian writers applied Zechariah 14:4 to the work of Jesus in His day. Consider the comments of fourth-century historian Eusebius:
But who would not be surprised at the fulfillment of a prophecy which revealed that the Jewish people would undergo these sufferings in the days of the Lord? For as soon as Jesus our Lord and Saviour had come and the Jews had outraged Him, everything that had been predicted was fulfilled against them without exception 500 years after the prediction: from the time of Pontius Pilate to the sieges under Nero, Titus and Vespasian they were never free from all kinds of successive calamities, as you may gather from the history of Flavius Josephus…. For after the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ, their city, Jerusalem itself, and the whole system and institutions of the Mosaic worship were destroyed; and at once they underwent captivity in mind as well as body, in refusing to accept the Saviour and Ransomer of the souls of men, Him Who came to preach release to those enslaved by evil dæmons, and giving of sight to those blind in mind.
Eusebius is emphatic that “everything that had been predicted was fulfilled against them without exception 500 years after the prediction.” This would have included Zechariah’s prophecy.
Even Zechariah 14:4 is interpreted by Eusebius as having a first-century fulfillment: “And the words, ‘And his feet shall stand in that day on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem to the eastward,’ what else can they mean than that the Lord God, that is to say the Word of God Himself, will stand, and stand firm, upon His Church, which is here metaphorically called the Mount of Olives?”
Eusebius sees the literal fulfillment of this prophecy in Acts 1:9–11 where Jesus is taken up into heaven “from the mount called Olivet” in the presence of His disciples (1:12). Soon after Jesus’ ascension, the gospel was preached to “Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (2:5) and later to the Gentiles who before the coming of Jesus as the Messiah (“to the Jew first”: Rom. 1:16; 2:9; Acts 3:26; Matt. 10:23) were considered “unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). It was in Christ that “the barrier of the dividing wall” between these two groups had been broken down (Eph. 2:14), possibly explained metaphorically by Zechariah as “the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west” (Zech. 14:4). Further comments by Eusebius clarify his preterist perspective:
“That the Mount of Olives shall be divided, half of it to the east and towards the sea, a very great chasm and half of it shall lean towards the north, and half of it towards the south,” it possibly shews the expression of the Church throughout the whole inhabited world, for it has filled the east, and the western and eastern nations; it stretches to the western sea, and the isles therein; yea, it has reached to west and south, and to north and north-east. On all sides and everywhere the Church figuratively called the Olive of the Lord is planted.
The language is no different from what is said about the coming of John the Baptizer:
And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS,
‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD,
MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.
EVERY RAVINE WILL BE FILLED,
AND EVERY MOUNTAIN AND HILL WILL BE BROUGHT LOW;
THE CROOKED WILL BECOME STRAIGHT,
AND THE ROUGH ROADS SMOOTH;
AND ALL FLESH WILL SEE THE SALVATION OF GOD’” (Luke 3:3–6; Isa. 40:3–5; 26:5–7; 49:11; 57:14).
When was every ravine filled and every mountain and hill brought low? The redemptive work of Jesus opened a way for the Gentiles, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2: the breaking down of the dividing wall. Was there a physical wall?
Eusebius sees the rest of Zechariah 14 as being fulfilled during the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, including the keeping of the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles). There is even some indication that Eusebius believed that the destruction of Jerusalem was the predicted coming of Jesus (cf. Matt. 24:1–34):
When, then, we see what was of old foretold for the nations fulfilled in our day, and when the lamentation and wailing that was predicted for the Jews, and the burning of the Temple and its utter desolation, can also be seen even now to have occurred according to the prediction, surely we must also agree that the King who was prophesied, the Christ of God, has come, since the signs of His coming have been shewn in each instance I have treated to have been clearly fulfilled.
Later in his Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius sees the fulfillment of Zechariah 14:5–9 in the first century: “This was fulfilled by the coming of our Saviour, accompanied either by His holy apostles and disciples, or by His angels and ministers, of whom the holy gospel says, ‘Angels came and ministered unto Him.’” While Eusebius does not quote all of Matthew 24, the passages he does reference are applied to events leading up to and including the judgment of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in AD 70.
Similarly, Tertullian (AD 145–220) wrote: “‘But at night He went out to the Mount of Olives.’ For thus had Zechariah pointed out: ‘And His feet shall stand in that day on the Mount of Olives’ [Zech. xiv. 4].” Tertullian was referring to the fact that the Olivet prophecy set the stage for the judgment coming of Christ that manifested itself with the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in AD 70 which would once for all break down the Jewish/Gentile division inherent in the Old Covenant (Eph. 2).
Matthew Henry, while alluding to its symbolic meaning, interprets the prophecy in a preterist fashion in events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70:
The partition-wall between Jew and Gentiles shall be taken away. The mountains about Jerusalem, and particularly this, signified it to be an enclosure, and that it stood in the way of those who would approach it. Between the Gentiles and Jerusalem this mountain of Bether, of division, stood, Cant. ii. 17. But by the destruction of Jerusalem this mountain shall be made to cleave in the midst, and so the Jewish pale shall be taken down, and the church laid in common with the Gentiles, who were made one with the Jews by the breaking down of this middle wall of partition, Eph. ii. 14.
You will notice that there is no mention of a thousand-year reign following the presence of “the LORD” on the Mount of Olives. A New Testament millennial theology is being read into Zechariah 14 by those who tend to futurize most prophetic passages far beyond their intended time of fulfillment.
James Jordan understands “Mount of Olives” in Zechariah 14:4 to be a reference to the crucifixion which he claims is the place where Jesus was crucified. The olive tree imagery is seen earlier in Zechariah 4 in the vision “where the prophet sees the two olive cherubim as two olive trees, feeding the oil of the Spirit into the lampstand of Israel’s witness.” This imagery is referred to again in Revelation 11:4 where we read about the “two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.”
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In Micah 1:3 we are told that God “is coming forth from His place” to “come down and tread on the high places of the earth.” Notice that it was a local judgment (1:5–7). How is this descriptive language different from the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives with the result that it will split? Micah says, “the mountains will melt under Him, and the valleys will be split, like wax before the fire, like water poured down on a steep place” (1:4). Is there physical evidence this happened or is the language designed to establish a different point (see Psalm 97:5; Deut. 4:24; Isa. 66:15)? Matthew Poole writes, “But figuratively mountains are mighty states and kingdoms, flourishing with prosperity, and which do think the foundation of this is sure as mountains. So Amos 6:1–2; Hab. 3:6 Isaiah 2:14.” What should we make of Amos 4:13?
For behold, He who forms mountains and creates the wind
And declares to man what are His thoughts,
He who makes dawn into darkness
And treads on the high places of the earth,
The Lord God of hosts is His name.
What should we make of the image of four chariots passing through two bronze mountains in Zechariah 6:1? Are the mountains and chariots and bronze mountains physical (literal)? There are no mountains of bronze or brass, as some translations have it, in the world. John Lightfoot’s comments on Zechariah 14:4 help put such language in literary perspective:
Hyperboles, with which the Scripture abounds, are not to be taken according to the letter, but the thing intended is to be taken at the higher pitch. As to instance but in one example, and that about this very mountain that Christ pointed at, Zech. 14.4. which meaneth not literally Olivets cleaving indeed or removing, but great concussions to the people, and open a way made for the enemy.
The history of interpretation of this verse is varied going back centuries. What is the meaning of Jesus’ comments when His disciples asked Him about the withering of the fig tree?
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:21–22).
What was “this mountain”? It was the Mount of Olives (21:1; 24:1). F. F. Bruce offers a helpful picture of what Jesus is alluding to:
The entry into Jerusalem was followed, a day or two later, by the incident of the unfruitful fig tree. In the context of this incident Mark places one of Jesus’ sayings about faith: “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea’, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” (Mark xi. 23). It was pointed out several years ago by the late Professor William Manson of Edinburgh that this is probably not such a floating logion as some form critics have maintained. For, if Mark’s setting is right, “this mountain” could only have been the Mount of Olives, which, according to Zechariah xiv. 4, was to be cleft asunder on the Day of the Lord, when Yahweh came down to fight against Jerusalem’s enemies. The natural inference is that not Mark but “Jesus had the Old Testament passage in mind, and the tradition followed by Mark was here true to history.” The logion is then a picturesque way of saying, “If only you have sufficient faith in God, the promised Day of the Lord will come swiftly.”
The New Testament is filled with statements about the swift — “soon” (Rev. 1:1), “near” (1:3; 22:10; James 5:8; 1 Pet. 4:7), “quickly” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20) — coming of the Lord before their generation passed away (Matt. 10:23; 16:27–28; 23:36; 24:34).
At this point in my study, this remains a work in progress.
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 5:406, note 1.
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:26–27, (285–286). Emphasis added.
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:28 (287c).
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:31 (289d).
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:146 (412b-d). “The fulfilment of this also agrees with the passages quoted on the destruction of the whole Jewish race, which came upon them after the coming of Christ. For Zechariah writes this prophecy after the return from Babylon, foretelling the final siege of the people by the Romans, through which the whole Jewish race was to become subject to their enemies: he says that only the remnant of the people shall be saved, exactly describing the apostles of our Saviour” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Proof of the Gospel, 2.3.50, 53).
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:147 (413).
Eusebius, The Proof the Gospel, 2:214 (487d).
“Tertullian Against Marcion,” Book 4, chapter XL, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 3:417.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’ Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (New York: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 4:1468.
James B. Jordan, “The Meaning of the Mount of Olives,” Biblical Horizons, No. 84 (April 1996): http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-84-christ-in-the-holy-of-holies-the-meaning-of-the-mount-of-olives/
John Lightfoot, The Harmony, Chronicle and Order of the New Testament (London: 1655), 57.
See the Editor’s note in Calvin’ Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 5:411–412, note 1.
W. Manson, Jesus the Messiah (Hodder & Stoughton, 1943), 29–30.
F. F. Bruce, “The Book of Zechariah and the Passion Narrative,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library (March 1961), 347–348.