Could Zechariah 14:16-18 be about a literal event, or is it about heaven? Wouldn’t the Jews have taken this literally?
I was hoping you could help me understand how the the setting of Zechariah 14:16-18 could be referring to somewhere other than Earth. “Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The Lord will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.” Zechariah 14:16-18 NIV 1. Since the first 15 verses clearly place the setting on earth and there’s no indication of a change of setting between those verses and verse 16, shouldn’t we interpret verses 16 though 18 as taking place on earth as well? 2. Do you agree with the basic principle of interpretation that a literal reading is to be preferred unless there is some indication that the author is using metaphor? If not, then how do you determine what is literal and what is symbolic? If so, then on what grounds do you conclude that Zachariah isn’t actually saying that people are going to go up year after year to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the Tabernacle? How do you know Zachariah didn’t actually mean what he wrote? “The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” (Psalm 37:29 NIV) If I understand correctly, you believe that the author of this psalm was not actually speaking about the earthy ground when he says that the righteous will inherit the land and dwell there forever. The reason you provided is that Psalms often contain more symbolism than other texts of the bible. However, if you read any chapter in Psalms you’ll find plenty of verses that clearly are not symbolic. So how you determine when a passage in Psalms is using symbolism and where it is speaking literally? Also, if the author of psalm 37 wasn’t referring to a location on earth when he used the word אָ֑רֶץ(ā-reṣ : land), then what land could he have possibly been referring to? Imagine you are a Jew living around 500 to 600 bc. You haven’t the slightest clue that those who are justified go to heaven after they die but you come across a verse which says: “Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:13-14 ) 1. As an early Jew, wouldn’t you interpret Ezekiel 37:13-1 as referring to an earthly resurrection similar to what we find in Matthew 27:52-53? 2. Do you believe that the Jews back then interpreted the word ‘אַדְמַתְכֶ֑ם'(your own land) to be referring to somewhere other than earth? If so, where? 3. Do you believe the statement that God will open the graves and bring people up from them sounds more like a spiritual resurrection than an earthly one? Thanks for taking the time to address my questions.
I believe we need to be cautious against forcing one particular interpretation of apocalyptic passages such as Zechariah 14:16-18. The intent of the author/God in most apocalyptic passages is to create a visceral, emotional response, not to get across a particular dogmatic/doctrinal point. Also, you should bear in mind that in a good number of prophecies, God combines language about the coming of the kingdom which has mixed application. For example, in Matthew 24:4-35, Jesus is talking both about when the Kingdom came in AD 70, with the destruction of Jerusalem and his “second coming.” Most scholars agree (and I agree with them) that Jesus is using the same imagery to describe both comings. There are many examples of this mixed symbolism or “double prophecy.” Ezekiel is loaded with this, as is Zechariah. For example, in Ezekiel 36:18-38, the prophecy has details which almost HAVE to be about the restoration of Judah to the Promised Land after the Babylonian captivity, but also language which clearly is a prophecy of our restoration to a relationship with God through Jesus. It is about physical salvation of Judah and spiritual salvation in the Christian Church. The same can be said for Ezekiel 34:25-31 and Ezekiel 37:15-28. In Ezekiel 38 there is “double prophecy” concerning the church and heaven. Similar parallel prophecy is found in Jeremiah and Zechariah.
But this gets me to your question. I am convinced that Zechariah 14:16-18 is in the midst of one of these kingdom prophecies which can have more than one application. Like certain parts of Revelation, it is about those who attack the Church and God’s judgment on such people, but it is also about the final judgment and salvation. Besides, it is in apocalyptic language which is cryptic and must be understood from symbolism. I believe that “on that day” in Zechariah 14:20-21 is a reference to end times and to the final kingdom of God. There is little doubt that this is an apocalyptic description of heaven. As for Zechariah 14:16-18, this, like in Revelation, may be a prophecy about the current “Church age.” It appears to be a reference to people who would oppose the Church. The use of the Feast of Tabernacle is intended for us to think of being in a relationship with God. V. 18 seems to be a statement that those who do not repent and become part of the Church will be judged. So, although Zechariah 14:20-21 seems to be about heaven, Zechariah 14:16-19 appears to be about the time between when the Church was established and when Jesus will come back.
So….. Yes, I agree that, although this is apocalyptic language, and specific interpretation should be done with caution, yes, most likely, this passage concerns things in the present age.
Do I agree that a literal interpretation is to be preferred to a figurative one? That TOTALLY depends on the type of literature. With historical or doctrinal literature, of course the literal is to be preferred. When it says that David killed Goliath, I believe that literal David literally killed literal Goliath. However, with apocalyptic language such as the entire chapter of Zechariah 14, the exact opposite applies. With apocalyptic language, things should be interpreted symbolically unless the context demands the literal. The question of the literal or the symbolic is a big one, but common sense applies in most cases. In apocalyptic literature one does not interpret things literally unless required to. In Acts 2:1-16, the context demands literal interpretation. The apostles literally spoke in languages they did not know. But then in Acts 2:17-21, which is a quote of an apocalyptic passage from Joel, the opposite applies. No, the sun did not literally turn to darkness on the Day of Pentecost. Neither did blood and fire billow from below. This is apocalyptic and should be taken symbolically. There are many other “rules” for interpreting passages of particular phrases literally or symbolically. I am including a list of “rules” for symbolic interpretation at the end of this letter. This is taken from a class on Hermeneutics which you can find at the web site. Do a search for the word hermeneutics.
On that principle, I believe that Zechariah is talking about “going up year after year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles” as using Jewish symbolism for people living in a relationship with God and applying it to the Christian experience. It is helpful to understand the New Testament usage of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles to interpret Zechariah 14:16-18. Jesus used Tabernacles symbolism often in his ministry, especially as found in the Book of John. For example in John 1:14 the Greek is that Jesus came for a while and “Tabernacled” among us. We do not take this literally. We believe that this means he lived among us and we had a relationship with him. I believe this is the imagery in Zechariah 14:16-18. Obviously, I do not expect you to agree with me just because I say it, but I believe that this is the most reasonable interpretation of the passage. It is quite impossible for all Christians to literally travel to Jerusalem and to literally celebrate the literal festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem every year!!! I believe that Zechariah “meant what he wrote” except that what he meant by what he wrote is that believers in Jesus will have fellowship with him, and those who do not will be shut out from the kingdom.
As for Psalm 37:29, I believe that this could be double prophecy as well, but in any case, the principle application is to heaven where we will “permanently” occupy the future promised land with God forever. With Psalms, often things are literal and often they are symbolic. It is not like historical books where nearly everything is literal. However, it is poetry and everyone knows that poetry is filled with imagery and symbolism. So, the rule is that we take every case one at a time. We cannot force a rule onto Psalms, as different Psalms have different styles, authors and intents. I would simply say, let us read Psalms 37, apply some simple rules of interpretation and decide which is the most reasonable conclusion. I believe that Psalm 37:29 can have application both for the Jews and for us as disciples of Jesus. The land he is referring to may, in part, be the physical Promised Land of Israel, but it is principally the spiritual Promised Land of heaven. The symbolism of the Promised Land as heaven is a very common thing in the Bible. For example, the physical Promised Land is used as a symbol of Heaven in Hebrews 3:7-4:13. I could give dozens of examples of the Promised Land as symbol for heaven.
Imagine you are a Jew…. I agree with you here. We should assume that the Jews tended to interpret things like Ezekiel 34 and 36 and 37, as well as Zechariah 14 and Psalms 37 in a more literal, physical way. This is natural and it is not completely incorrect. God is so amazing that he created such passages to teach something to the Jews and something more spiritual to us, who can also understand how the Jews would have understood it. How awesome is that!!! Yes, I completely agree with you that the Jews would have a more physical interpretation, but I am glad that as a Christian, with the New Testament in hand, I can have a fuller understanding of these passages.
How do we know if a passage is figurative?
a. An implied impossibility or absurdity. Luke 9:60 Let the dead bury their dead. The
first dead is figurative. (the word dead, death is often tricky. Ex Rom 5)
Jacob I lofed, Esau I hated. Mal 1:2-3 hated = opposed, judged, not supported, Rom 9:13. Luke 14:26 If anyone would come after me, he must hate his….
b. When it requires a contradiction or an inconsistency. John 11:25,26 (will live, even
though he dies. If literal, he is contradicting himself.)
c. When it requires an obviously immoral conclusion. Matthew 18:9 (gouge out your
d. When the context clearly implies it, or when the author says so. Jn 2:18-20
(he was speaking about his body).
e. Let common sense apply. John 4:10-15 “streams of living water…”
f. All this, of course, changes for apocalyptic literature (see below)
Rules for interpreting the figurative:
1. We should interpret the figurative as the audience would have interpreted it.
Ex: Parable of the sower should be interpreted as a farmer in Judea in AD 30 would have.
Ex: The Lord is my Shepherd should be interpreted in terms of how shepherds behaved in 1000 BC
Ex: The parable of the wedding banquet or of the foolish virgins should be interpreted in light of wedding traditions in AD 30.
2. Do not over-interpret the figurative. Do not go to the point of allegorizing. Do not interpret every single detail. Ex parable of the marriage feast, interpreting the fact that he chose buying a field to imply something about how we should use our farm property.