Wolters, Al. “Zechariah 14: A Dialogue with the History of Interpretation.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 13 (2002): 39-56.
In this article, Al Wolters surveys various historical interpretations of Zechariah 14. He summarizes the view, identifies representatives of the view, elaborates on how the view was held by one of the representatives, and identifies weaknesses in that person’s approach.
“Zechariah 14 (all except the last two verses, which refer to the last days) was fulfilled in the days of the Maccabean Revolt in the early second century B.C.” (42).
Held by: Ephraem the Syrian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ishodad of Merv, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Dathius (1773), Hermen Venema (1697-1787).
Weaknesses: Grotius “compelled to depart from the literal sense in some places. … Moreover, it is extremely forced to take ‘his feet’ in verse 4 as referring to the feet of anyone but the Lord, who is the subject of the previous sentence” (44)
“Zechariah 14 as referring in general to the period of history which runs from the New Testament to the Second Coming.” 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” (44).
Held by: Didymus the Blind, Luther, Leupold, Lambertus Danaeus, annotators of the Dutch Statenvertaling, etc.
Weaknesses: “It seems arbitrary to espouse a literal interpretation at first, but then to switch to a symbolical one later.” Luther’s interpretation that the Mount of Olives is “representing the disciples” and the valley created by the split in the mounting is “representing the deserted synagogue, seems not only very forced but also mutually exclusive” (45).
Zechariah was fulfilled in “the time from Israel’s return from exile to the New Testament” (46).
Held by: “appears to be unique to Calvin” (46)
Weaknesses: “Not only is there a certain arbitrariness in deciding what is and what is not to be taken as ‘figurative,’ but the category ‘figurative’ seems to allow for very few exegetical controls. If the phrase ‘his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives’ has no other meaning than ‘he will be a powerful defender,’ then language has been large deprived of its semantic specificity, and the interpreter has almost unbridled freedom” (47-48).
Zechariah 14 uses figurative language in “depicting the ends times,” that is the “eschatological future associated with the rise of the Antichrist, the return of Christ, and the last judgment” (48).
Held by: C. F. Keil, A. Köhler, C. H. H. Wright, E. B. Pusey, H. Veldkamp, A. van der Woude, Thomas E. McComiskey, Jan Ridderbos.
Weaknesses: Ridderbos’s exegesis “explains the literal meaning of the text, but the conclusion says something different.… There is apparently a dramatic disparity between what the prophetic words lead one to expect, and the even more glorious reality of their fulfillment…. It is clear that this interpretation too has its palpable weaknesses. It is not fully consistent, since not every part of the prophecy can be said to refer to the last days, and the gap between the prophetic word and the eschatological reality which it purports to describe is quite dramatic. It is of course true that the fulfillment of a prophecy may well be more glorious than the prophetic words initially indicate, but may it also be almost unrecognizably different?” (49-50).
Zechariah 14 refers to the “last days” and the words should be “interpreted literally” (50).
Held by: “some antecedents in early Jewish exegesis,” J. N. Darby, David Baron, Merrill F. Unger, Charles L. Feinberg, Eugene Merrill, James Montgomery Boice (50).
Weakness: “the hermeneutical assumption that Old Testament Jerusalem (and Israel) cannot, indeed must not, prefigure the New Testament church … is the great Achilles’ heel of [Unger’s] interpretation” (52-53).
“Assuming a pre-exilic date, a number of German scholars, including Bertholdt, Hitzig, Ewald, and Bertheau, interpreted Zechariah 14 as the work of a prophet who foresaw the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., and predicted that God would intervene on Israel’s behalf after an initial defeat” (53). The prophecy did not come to pass; God did not intervene.
Held by: Bertholdt, Hitzig, Ewald, and Bertheau
Weaknesses: “The weakness of this position, both from a historical and a confessional point of view, are too obvious to require elaboration” (53-54).
“takes Zechariah 14 to be an example of apocalyptic language—a kind of language which in the nature of the case tells us nothing about the future” (54). To raise the question of fulfillment “is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of apocalyptic literature.”
Held by: “Paul D. Hanson (1975), Wilhelm Rudolph (1976), Carol and Eric Meyers (1993), Paul Redditt (1995), David L. Petersen (1995)” (54)
Weaknesses: “Quite apart from the confessional issue of methodologically excluding the possibility of predictive prophecy, Hanson’s approach is speculative in the extreme” (55).
“The prophecy of Zechariah 14 is fulfilled in subsequent history, but not only in certain phases or events of subsequent history. It is fulfilled in every phase of the history of Jerusalem, both the history of Jerusalem as the geographical capital of the Old Testament nation of Israel, and the antitypical prolongation of that holy city in the New Testament church of God in every phase of its history from Pentecost to the eschaton. It finds its fulfillment in the Maccabean struggle in the second century B.C., and in the persecution and deliverance of Christians in the Sudan today, and in the time of the Antichrist and Christ’s return. In a sense the first five interpretations are all right, but they are also all wrong to the extent that they deny the validity of the others…. My own position would be that a literal interpretation is certainly possible, referring to events either in the last days or in world history before the Second Coming. A literal interpretation is possible, but certainly not necessary. We need to reckon with the possibility that apocalyptic language allows for a whole range of kinds of fulfillment. Perhaps the dramatic descriptions of Zechariah 14 are best understood as examples of concrete universals, imaginative constructs which demonstrate their truth in a wide variety of specific historical embodiments” (56).
It is notable that Wolters’s identifies significant weaknesses for each view except view 5. The assumption that Old Testament Jerusalem must not prefigure the New Testament church is not necessary to view 5. Indeed, I doubt that James Montgomery Boice held to that position. The question is whether in this particular passage Jerusalem is meant to prefigure the church. Wolters himself opts for an idealist approach, but the difficulty with this approach is that idealism is a modern approach to dealing with apocalyptic literature. I’ve not yet seen it demonstrated that the ancients understood that the apocalyptic genre was to be interpreted in an idealist manner. Further, when the apocalyptic visions of Daniel are interpreted within that book they are interpreted according to a historicist or futurist paradigm. It seems, then, that the only interpretation to withstand Wolters’s critique is view 5.