Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Zechariah 14 and Prophetic Symbolism

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Brian Simmons, one respondent to my previous blog "Marvelous Mountains," has made the following observations:

If you admit location in Zech. 14, you should take the passage literally. For instance, if the city of Jerusalem is the literal city, then the mount of Olives EASTWARD of the city must be literal as well. Direction demands location. Otherwise, you are using an inconsistent two-tiered hermeneutic. There is simply no objective exegetical basis for taking the city literally, and the mountain spiritually.

Also, just because God said He was the fountain of living waters does not necessarily allow one to import that concept into Zech. 14. Christ also said "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11: 25), yet orthodox Christians do not spiritualize passages that speak of the physical resurrection of the body. This very kind of reasoning is what leads to Hyper-Preterism and Hymeneanism.

I thank him for his insightful observations. Nevertheless, I do not believe that we must take Zech 14 literalistically. Please note the following:

1. The mention of a "location" (i.e., Jerusalem) does not necessarily require that we "should take the passage literally." If that were true, then no historical location could ever be used as a symbolic image. But we know very clearly that such often occurs in Scripture. Powerful symbolism is often crafted from known earthly phenomenon. For instance, in Gal 4:25–26 and Heb 12:22 "Jerusalem" is applied to heavenly realities.

2. In light of my observations in point 1, then, it does not follow that "direction demands location." If the historical places of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives can symbolize other truths, then "direction" may be added to the imagery to fill out the symbolism.

3. Zech 14:4 states that "in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives." God's feet standing or treading on the earth is a common prophetic symbol that does not demand literality. When Amos states that God "treads on the high places of the earth" (Amos 4:13), he does not mean that God literally walks on all the mountains. When Micah declares that "the Lord is coming forth from His place" and that "He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth" causing the mountains to melt and the valleys to split (Mic 1:3–4) this does not require us to suppose that God will literally come down out of heaven and walk on the high places causing the mountains to melt. This is dramatic, apocalyptic, theophanic imagery of God's great power and intervention in worldly affairs.

4. Regarding the "fountain of living waters," I would note that the spiritual understanding of these waters is not imposed on the text without warrant. In fact, we see in the preceding, closely-linked vision that "a fountain will be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity" (Zech 13:1). Unless we interpret this literally — arguing for waters that literally cleanse from sin — then we must recognize that the waters in Zech 14 may also indicate a spiritual reality.

5. Brian also states that "Christ also said 'I am the resurrection and the life' (John 11: 25), yet orthodox Christians do not spiritualize passages that speak of the physical resurrection of the body." He is certainly correct in this observation. However, this very statement exposes the inadequacy in his argument. Note that he states that "orthodox Christians do not spiritualize passages that speak of the physical resurrection." But here he admits that some passages speaking of resurrection do not refer to the "physical resurrection." This opens the whole question: Which passages speaking of resurrection must we understand literally and which spiritually? The same is true of passages speaking of "Jerusalem" and "direction."

6. Regarding the concern over "Hyper-Preterism": we must not allow heretical extremes to scare us away from a text simply because of certain similarities of argument. For instance, I am a Calvinist despite the fact that some have abused the Calvinist system by promoting Hyper-Calvinism (i.e., since God sovereignly saves men we do not need to evangelize or send out missionaries). We must properly distinguish between use and abuse. When we read through Zechariah's several prophecies we discover abundant use of symbolism for dramatic effect.

7. In closing, I would note that one of the best of Reformed exegetes is John Calvin. Though he is certainly note infallible, I do not believe he is guilty of arbitrary exegesis when he denies the literality of Zech 14:4. In his commentary on Zechariah (John Owen translation) Calvin writes:

"Stand, he says, shall his feet on the mount of Olives. He does not here promise a miracle, such as even the ignorant might conceive to be literal; nor does he do this in what follows, when he says, The mount shall be rent, and half of it shall turn to the eat and half to the west."

Calvin goes on to state that Zechariah is "employing a highly figurative language" by which he "accommodates himself, as I have said, to the capacity of our flesh."