The Return of the King
Passage: Zechariah 14:1–11
Sermon from Zechariah 14:1-11 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Zechariah: Restoration & Return (Part 22)
Delivered on March 13, 2016
Zechariah 14. We’re going to cover about half of the chapter this week and finish it up, Lord willing, next week. So, let’s read verses 1-11, and pray together...
1Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. 5And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. 6On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. 7And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. 8On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. 9And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. 10The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s winepresses. 11And it shall be inhabited, for there shall never again be a decree of utter destruction. Jerusalem shall dwell in security. [Pray]
In 1526 the famous reformer Martin Luther wrote a commentary on Zechariah. His commentary, though, stopped at chapter 13 without any explanation why. One year later, Luther wrote a second commentary on Zechariah, but even this time with just brief remarks on sections of chapter 14 that begin with these words: “Here in this chapter I give up. For I am not sure what the prophet is talking about.”
We must appreciate Luther’s humble admission. His remarks illustrate how many Christians over the centuries have been humbled in their attempts to understand Zechariah 14. I won’t pretend to give you a definitive word on this chapter, but I will set before you what I’ve learned from it, especially as I see the New Testament developing many of the same themes along lines of the kingdom being already and not-yet—already in that Christ has come a first time; and not-yet in that Christ is still to come again.
Once again, we’ll also encounter quite a bit of symbolism. Zechariah will use categories from the past to speak of future realities that far surpass the old forms. At the same time, we shouldn’t press the symbolism too far, such that we turn actual future events into mere spiritual realities. The symbolism is rich indeed, but that symbolism points to some actual events that have yet to occur, such as the visible return of Jesus and the cosmic transformation of the universe. I’ll try to put some more skin on that in a minute. But before I do, let me give you a synopsis of how I understand this passage: Zechariah 14 uses symbolic language to describe the actual return of Jesus Christ to establish his future kingdom, the blessings of which we can already experience now through the Holy Spirit. Now, in order to see that, we’re going to have to take three steps.
Step 1: From a City Embattled to a City Secure
The first step is this: Zechariah takes us from a city embattled to a city secure. I want you to see the beginning and the end of our passage—the bookends, so to speak. Because Zechariah takes us from a scene like the Battle for Gondor in The Lord of the Rings and ends on this peaceful setting like the Shire after evil has been vanquished.
In verses 1-2 we see a city embattled: “Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.”
For a people who’ve just come out of the exile, a scene like this is very familiar and very tragic. It’s familiar because the generation before them experienced these very things. God gathered the nations against his people to put them in exile for a time. And the arrogant nations dominated Israel—they captured their city (Jer 32:3, 24; 38:3, 28); they stole their possessions (Ps 89:41; Jer 30:16); they took advantage of their women (cf. Deut 28:30); they carried them into exile (2 Kgs 24:15-16; Jer 29:1, 4).
All of this happened, of course, because of sin. Sin filled the city. Sin was present in his people, and God was seeking their repentance, their humility, their exclusive trust (Lev 26:41-42; Isa 1:21-31). He would see through it all that a people, remnant would finally be kept for him, devoted to him, worshiping him.
Here we find a similar scene that’s promised for the future. Borrowing from the past imagery of exile, Zechariah envisions a future day. God will gather the nations against Jerusalem once again. And his people will experience horrific suffering. And yet through it all, God will preserve for himself a remnant (Zech 14:2).
Amos 9:9-10 are helpful here, because it shows us why God would bring the nations against his people once again. It says, “For behold, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’” You see, even toward the end some within God’s people will still not have learned from God’s previous judgments. The arrogant will have to be sifted once again.
Zechariah’s message is quite similar—God’s judgment is coming, and even the nation of Israel won’t escape it. And this is quite fitting since most of the emphasis has been on God judging the Gentile nations. One’s Jewish bloodline means nothing if they’re not united to Christ by faith. But some will be. God will preserve for himself a remnant that is united to Christ by faith. And he will protect them.
You see, there’s good news in our passage as well. The good news is that suffering for God’s remnant will end. Tribulation will end. Exile will end. The enemies of God’s people will not get the final word. Look down at verse 11, for example. This is the ending of our passage, the other bookend: “[Jerusalem] shall be inhabited, for there shall never again be a decree of utter destruction. Jerusalem shall dwell in security.” That’s a remarkable ending. The nations of verse 2—no longer a threat. The city embattled will finally become the city secure. How do we get from the city embattled to the city secured?
Step 2: The King’s Return
How will God do it? The answer is the return of the King. This is our second step toward understanding Zechariah 14. The King returns to deliver his people in battle and transform the earth with his rule. Let’s develop that a little more.
The King returns to deliver his people in battle
First, the King returns to deliver his people in battle. Verse 3, “Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.” If there’s anything Scripture teaches us, it’s this: when God goes to war against anybody, he doesn’t lose. One of his angels put to death 185,000 soldiers in a single night—and he’s got myriads upon myriads of them. This isn’t going to be a long battle. In fact, we see Jesus himself making quick work of the nations in Revelation 19. So, he will return to defeat the enemies of his people.
Verse 4 continues his battle march: “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.”
The Mount of Olives is significant because in Ezekiel 11:23, the glory of the Lord had departed from his temple for the exile; and it stood over this mountain which was in the east. Then later, in Ezekiel 43:2, the Lord’s glory was supposed to return to the temple from that same mountain in the east. Zechariah is building on the same imagery. He’s painting a picture of the Lord’s glory returning to his people.
But the manifestation of that glory—the shear gravity of it all is enough to split the Mountain in two. This shouldn’t surprise us, if we’re reading our Bibles. When the Lord chooses to manifest his glory, the earth trembles (cf. Jer 10:10). Mountains melt like wax before the Lord, Psalm 97:5 says. Isaiah associates the Lord’s coming with him raising up valleys and flattening mountains—they’re like nothing in the path of this divine warrior.
But notice what the splitting of this mountain provides—it provides his people a way of escape. In fact, the Hebrew behind the English word “split” also appears in Exodus 14:21, where God split the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his armies cornered Israel; there was no way out; the situation was impossible—and then Booyah! God splits the sea, so they can escape on dry ground. Same thing here—when Jesus touches his feet on the Mount of Olives, he will provide his people with a way of escape. He’ll make a highway to rescue them. It will be like a new and greater exodus deliverance.
“Then the LORD my God will come,” verse 5 says, “and all the holy ones with him.” That could be angels—Mark 8:38 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7 say that Jesus will return with holy angels in flaming fire. But other places suggest it could also be God’s people—the whole company of his redeemed people returning with him. Zechariah 10:5 seems to suggest it’s his people; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and Revelation 19:14 suggest that when Jesus returns to earth his people return with him—even those who were dead or martyred will be raised to life and reign with him (cf. Isa 40:10-11). It could also be both angels and people (cf. Deut 33:2-3). Regardless, here’s the point: the King will open the way of escape to himself.
The King transforms the earth with his rule
Secondly, the King also transforms the earth with his rule. Verse 9 says that the Lord will be King over all the earth; the Lord will be one and his name one (cf. Deut 4:35, 39; 6:4). Meaning, there will be no other Kings on earth besides him. His supreme right to the throne will finally be manifest on earth. It seems to me that this is the same moment Jesus speaks of in Matthew 19:28 and Matthew 25:31, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne in the new world. And when that happens, things about this world will change cataclysmically.
Listen to this…verse 6, “On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost.” There’s a translation difficulty here; even the ESV mentions it in a footnote. A better translation would be this: “On that day there shall be no light, the splendid ones [like the stars and other heavenly lights] will congeal.” In other words, when Jesus returns light as we know it coming from the sun and moon and stars—it will cease to exist. And in its place will be this: verse 7, “And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.”
How do you have light without light? God shows up and floods the earth with his glory. God isn’t dependent on this created order for light (Gen 1:3, 14). First John 1:5 says God is light. When Jesus returns and establishes his rule, the earth will enter an age of never-ending light. There won’t be a sunrise anymore or a sunset. We’ll have something far more glorious to gaze upon. Revelation 21:23 says that his city will have no need for sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives its light and its lamp is the Lamb. You think the sun is bright?! You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Verse 8 continues the transformation: “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.” Now, this life-giving river actually builds on some biblical imagery stretching from Genesis to Revelation.
The Garden of Eden was comparable to a sanctuary, because of the Lord’s presence within it. And within this Garden-sanctuary, we find a river that goes out in four directions to water the land (Gen 2:10-14). Of course, after Adam and Eve get kicked out of the Garden, they don’t experience the plush land fed by this river. Instead, the ground would be cursed; it would bear thorns and thistles—all because of sin. The same happened with Israel, because of their sin. God shut up the skies, so that the Promised Land became desolate as well, a wasteland, a cursed land.
But then in step the prophets, especially Ezekiel 47. By grace, the Lord would make a new sanctuary where he would dwell with his people once more, just like he dwelled with them in the Garden. And coming from the Lord’s presence in the new sanctuary, Ezekiel sees a river, a great river. And wherever this river would flow from God’s presence, it brought new life again; and much of the descriptions in Ezekiel of the waters teaming with life and the fruit of the trees growing without fail, harkens back once again to the Garden. In other words, the river of life spoke of the reversal of God’s curse on the land and God’s curse on the world.
Zechariah is building on the same imagery, only he takes it one step further. The river isn’t just flowing from the temple; it’s flowing from the city. The whole city has become an Eden-like sanctuary. And this is the same city we saw back in 2:4-5—it doesn’t have walls because there’s too many people and livestock. This river isn’t just flowing for the Jews; it’s flowing for Gentiles too.
And then finally Revelation 22:1-5, give us another glimpse of this same river, and it says this: “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
And he’s not done yet—next we see the King also exalting his final city. Verse 10 says, “The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s winepresses.” All these gates and the tower, they’re actual places in Jerusalem in all four directions of the compass—the idea being, the whole city will be exalted.
This was another way of saying that God’s kingdom alone would stand. The same imagery appears in Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-4 to speak of the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth above all other kingdoms.
And then finally, we reach the end once again in verse 11: “[Jerusalem] shall be inhabited, for there shall never again be a decree of utter destruction. Jerusalem shall dwell in security.” There shall never again be “a decree of utter destruction,” the herem in Hebrew. This is what’s otherwise known as “the ban” in the Old Testament.
If your city was under “the ban,” you were under the threat of divine extermination. God’s curse was upon you for sin. But not this city—this city will never experience a threat of divine extermination. God’s curse will never again come against it—no more thorns and thistles growing; no more nations raging; no more exile to experience. As John puts it about this same city in Revelation 22:3, “There will no longer be any curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”
So, how will God take us from the city embattled to the city secure? The King, Jesus Christ, the God who took on flesh—he will return to deliver his people in battle and transform the earth with his rule.
Step 3: The Blessings of the Final Kingdom Now
But there’s still one more step that we must take, and I don’t want to overlook. Most of what I’ve said pushes these events to the very end of history when Christ’s sets up his reign on earth. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we must wait to experience the blessings of his kingdom.
You see, what’s the one thing that makes all the difference in our passage? The one thing is the presence of the King. The presence of the King is what defeats our enemies in battle. The presence of the King is what transforms the world into his kingdom. The presence of the King is the source of life in his sanctuary-like city. And the New Testament says the life found in the presence of the King is available to you today.
What was it that Jesus asked the woman of Samaria—this woman who had five husbands and the man she was currently living with wasn’t her husband? What did Jesus say to her as he sat with her by the well? “Give me a drink.” She says to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus comes back, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:1-14).
What is this spring of water? How do I access this so-called living water? Jesus explains it for us in John 7:38-39: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Jesus said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Do you know when Jesus was glorified? When he was lifted up for sinners on the cross, raised from the dead, and seated at the right hand of the throne of God in heaven. It is from there that Jesus pours out rivers of living water through the Holy Spirit on his people, until he comes again. Zechariah 14 uses symbolic language to describe the actual return of Jesus Christ to establish his future kingdom, the blessings of which we can already experience now through the Holy Spirit.
Come to Christ now for living water
So in that light, I want to leave you with just three closing exhortations. First, come to Christ now for living water. God sent his Son into the world to die for your sins, and by trusting in Jesus you will become a citizen of his future city. But citizens of Christ’s future city drink from his living waters today. What does that mean?
It means the Holy Spirit brings new life where there was once death in you. It means that you now have access to the presence of the King, and just like the river in Zechariah, he transforms all that he touches into a new creation. It means that God himself is the one you turn to throughout your days for joy and hope and ultimate satisfaction. You’re not running like the Samaritan woman was to this or that idol for your satisfaction and meaning in life; Christ is everything to you.
It’s like Psalm 36:8-9 say, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life.” Are you spiritually thirsty this morning? God is a fountain of living water. Come to him and drink.
Trust Jesus with your present struggles
Something else: trust Jesus with your present struggles. A vision like this of the future is relevant for your present struggles with sin, or with relationships, or with crises, or with life period. It says this: if Jesus Christ can and will do all of this at the end for his people, what do you think he can do in your life now? If he can split mountains and transform the created order as we know it just by showing up, think of all the transformation he’s able to do in your life.
There’s a reason that 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If the new has already come, there’s hope for change. There’s hope for reconciliation. There’s hope for forgiveness. There’s hope for growth. Listen to this from Paul David Tripp—he’s speaking specifically of regrets that spouses often experience in marriage, but his words apply much more broadly and come from a similar vision of the future. He says,
Perhaps the brightest, most wonderful commitment of the Redeemer is captured in these words from Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I am making all things new.” New is the operative word for what God is seeking to do in you and in your marriage. You are not stuck. You are not committed to the mistakes of the past. You are not cursed to pay forever for your errors. God’s work is in the work of renewal. He sent his Son to earth in order to make real and lasting change possible. God has made fresh starts and new beginnings possible. Reconciliation can take place. Restoration really does happen. What was broken can be healed. The weeds of the old way can die, and flowers of a new, better way can grow in their place. God will not call us to face our harvest without giving us what we need to face it, and he will not call us to plant new seeds of a better way without giving us the wisdom and strength to do it. As we face regret, we bask in forgiveness and then turn to live in a new way, embracing the power that is ours as children of God.
Keep your longings in Christ’s future kingdom
Third, keep your longings in Christ’s future kingdom. How easy it is to get so distracted with this life, so comfortable with the riches of this world, so easy with the way things are going, that we lose sight of what is truly glorious. Advertisements make grand promises of how their product, or their diet, or their exercise routine, or their vacation packages will revolutionize your life. False prophets feed off the voice of the people and tell us to live our best life now—and while many of us find the theology of a Joel Osteen laughable, we have to at least ask if our pocket book is saying anything different. It’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said.
That’s why we need the Bible. The Bible points us to what is truly glorious. The Bible keeps our longings in the right age. Let Zechariah’s vision of the end keep your longings in the right place. Let it shape how you view your money—that you’d rather store up riches there instead of here. Let it shape how you view a sunset—when you see a glorious sunset, let it be a reminder to you that there’s coming a day of unending light that will outshine the sun in all its brilliance. Let it put some perspective on what you count truly wonderful—College sports? Corporate Success? Financial independence? As C. S. Lewis would say, “That’s like playing with mud pies in the slums because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea…We’re far too easily pleased.”
Take courage when facing hostility
Lastly, take courage when you face hostility. We might be taken by surprise when the day of suffering comes. We might be taken by surprise when certain people are put in positions of authority that we’d rather not have there. We might be taken by surprise when evil confronts us. But let this passage remind you that God is never taken by surprise. He is sovereign and in control of all. And he promises to protect his people—even if it means our life is taken, he will protect our soul and raise our body from the dead just like he did Jesus’ body. And he will give us the ultimate victory.
Strengthen your soul with this truth in the face of hostility: God has a plan to save his people. And you’ve read what that plan is even before it happens. And when God’s city is finally exalted, all who are in Christ, all who have been drinking from his rivers of living water, will be exalted with it. The Lord will be King over all the earth, brothers and sisters, so let us take courage in his return.