Part of what makes this final chapter confusing is how Zechariah seems to oscillate between idyllic scenes and catastrophic scenes. However, reading this chapter with John’s Revelation suggests a cohesive overall narrative.
From describing a time of unity and abundance under the rule of God, throned in Jerusalem, Zechariah now moved again to the spectacle of war.
This shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem:
—their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet;
—their eyes shall rot in their sockets,
—and their tongues shall rot in their mouths.Zechariah 14:12 (NRSV)
Some theologians see this as the result of a nuclear bomb, where all organic material is literally plasmized, melted away.
However, this is not the first time ancient readers would have come across a horrifying sickness. Throughout their history, such mass illnesses had been a sign of God’s judgment. One of the oldest documents in the Bible, the Book of Job, describes God’s judgment on the wicked,
Terrors frighten them on every side,Bildad to Job, Job 18:11-13 (NRSV)
and chase them at their heels.
Their strength is consumed by hunger,
and calamity is ready for their stumbling.
By disease their skin is consumed,
the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.
But probably the most stunning scourge—and the one that most closely matches Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision—was sent by God on Judah’s behalf, leveling Sennacherib’s entire army overnight.
That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.2 Kings 19:35 (NRSV)
John’s Revelation records the commencement of God’s final judgement, the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of God’s wrath, with an outbreak of infection.
I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.Revelation 6:8 (NRSV) [See also 9:18, 11:6, 18:8]
On that day a great panic from the Lord shall fall on them, so that each will seize the hand of a neighbor, and the hand of the one will be raised against the hand of the other; even Judah will fight at Jerusalem.Zechariah 14:13 (NRSV)
Zechariah’s audience was no stranger to terror, either. They had experienced the worst, the destruction Jerusalem, of the temple, and their own exile. God had also warned them from Mount Sinai, when the sacred covenant between God and Israel had first been cut, that if they did not keep their promise to obey God, God would bring terror upon them.
And, God had many times brought panic upon their enemies, driving their foes into confusion and disarray, so that they fought amongst each other.
I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.Exodus 23:27 (NRSV) [And other episodes]
And the wealth of all the surrounding nations shall be collected—gold, silver, and garments in great abundance.Zechariah 14:14 (NRSV)
The foreshadowing of this unexpected prediction came in the startling overflow of gifts from Egyptian families as the Hebrew people made their escape from Egypt.
The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.Exodus 12:35-36 (NRSV)
It was from that very plunder the tabernacle was constructed.
And a plague like this plague shall fall on the horses, the mules, the camels, the donkeys, and whatever animals may be in those camps.Zechariah 14:15 (NRSV)
Again, the ancient reader was well familiar with the Lord’s use of plagues to both display God’s omnipotence and sovereignty, but also as acts of judgment. Every year, the Passover Seder commemorates the Lord’s magnificent salvation through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and remembers each plague with a drop of wine.
Jesus warned of similar supernatural events coming as signs of the end.
There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.Jesus, Luke 21:11 (NRSV)
Penultimate, or Ultimate Battle?
Each of Zechariah’s predictions describe the destruction of the world’s armies, enemies of God and of God’s people.
However, millennial scholars point to either Armageddon, which comes before the Millennium, or the final conflict that comes before the Time of Judgment. Millennial theologians point out that when Jesus comes in power no unregenerated flesh can survive in His presence. Their example is Moses, whom God had to protect from full exposure to God’s glory by tucking him into a cleft in a rock and showing Moses only the Lord’s receding glory.
[God] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
But,” [God] said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”Exodus 33:19-23 (NRSV)
It seems those who have not been changed from perishable to imperishable will literally melt away in the presence of Jesus’ awesome glory. Yet, those who have been glorified—made immortal—will glow just like Jesus, as the Apostle John joyfully prophesied,
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: when he [Jesus] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.1 John 3:2 (NRSV)
The Apostle Paul put forward the same amazing prophecy,
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.1 Corinthians 15:50-53 (NRSV)
There is no question first century Christians read and believed Zechariah’s final oracle. Traces of his prophetic visions are found in the gospels, in the apostolic writings, and in the Revelation of John. The ancient prophet’s warnings are still future to us, but they carry no less impact. May we take comfort in knowing that when the time comes, as unimaginably horrifying as it is predicted to be, these events will be under the Lord’s sovereign hand.