Zechariah 14 Part #9 by Robert Cruickshank

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Zechariah 14, Part 9 (Zechariah 14:16-19)

 Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr (October 15, 2023)

All Rights Reserved

 

“Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. 17 And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. 18 And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. 19 This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16-19).

 

In this passage, Zechariah speaks of the nations of the earth sojourning to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (i.e., booths).  The consequences of not making this trek and participating in the celebration are a lack of rainfall for those who sit it out. This is a vivid picture illustrating the need to come to Christ coupled with the outcome of rejecting him.  In short, the imagery pictures the realities of the New Covenant age.

Many, however, see this as a renewal of the Old Covenant rites and rituals during a future Millennium. In other words, they teach that the Feast of Tabernacles will be re-instituted with everyone on earth required to travel to Jerusalem to physically celebrate it – just as it was celebrated in Old Testament times. A previous installment in this series demonstrated how this would be logistically impossible.[1] More importantly, it is Biblically impossible. Jesus is the embodiment and fulfillment of all such types and shadows (Col. 2:16-17), and the New Testament warns against returning to the physical observance of such things (Gal. 4:10-11).

The Feast of Tabernacles was a fall-harvest festival which commemorated the Israelites living in booths after their Exodus from Egypt. It was also eschatologically oriented as it looked forward to a time when Gentiles would likewise dwell in the tabernacling presence of God’s grace and mercy.[2] Jesus fulfills every aspect of this feast and the invitation to embrace Him is unending. Zechariah 14:16-19 is about turning to Him, not returning to ceremonies that pointed to Him.

Edit by Don K. Preston– See my new book: Resurrection Feast Fulfilled: A Study of the Relationship Between Israel’s Final Feast Day – Succot – and the Resurrection for an indepth study of Succot, the Feast of Harvest.

 

The Fulfillment of the Feast

In part 6 of this study,[3] it was noted that Jesus stood up on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles and declared: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.  The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37b-38).  D.A. Carson makes the connecting between the timing of this feast, the imagery of water and rainfall, and the significance of Jesus’ words on that day:

 

“It is clear that this Feast was associated with adequate rainfall (cf. Zc. 14:16-17—and interestingly enough, this chapter from Zechariah was read on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles in the liturgy prescribed in B. Megilla 31a), not surprisingly in light of the harvest connections…The water-pouring ceremony is interpreted in these traditions as a foretaste of the eschatological rivers of living water foreseen by Ezekiel (47:1-9) and Zechariah (13:1). In these traditions the water miracle in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-7; Nu. 20:8-13; cf. Ps. 78:16-20) is in turn a forerunner of the water rite of the Feast of Tabernacles…In general terms, then, Jesus’ pronouncement is clear: he is the fulfillment of all the Feast of Tabernacles anticipated. If Isaiah could invite the thirsty to drink from the waters (Is. 55:1), Jesus announces that he is the one who can provide the waters.”[4]

 

Jesus is Our Tabernacle

Apart from the imagery of a fall feast being associated with water and adequate rainfall, Jesus fulfills the essence of the feast itself in that He is our tabernacle. Scripture tells us that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [tabernacled] among us” (Jn. 1:14). The term used here for “dwelt” is skēnoō, and it means: “to pitch a tent, encamp; to tabernacle, dwell in a tent; to dwell, have one’s abode.”

The same word is used by John again in the book of Revelation: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell [tabernacle] with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God’” (Rev. 21:3).  This is the reality of the relationship that we have with the Lord in the New Covenant – He pitches His tent and tabernacles among us. The Old Testament feast was merely a type or shadow of that reality. Jesus is the embodiment of all that the Feast of Tabernacles signified and symbolized.

 

Tabernacles and the Exodus

The purpose of the feast was to commemorate God’s people dwelling in tabernacles in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt (Lev. 23:39-43). As such, the Israelites were to gather “the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches, and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook” and “rejoice before the Lord” (Lev. 23:40). A beautiful picture of Jesus as the fulfillment of this is seen in the Gospels when He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mk. 11:1-6), and the people spread out “leafy branches which they had cut from the fields” (Mk. 11:8), and they declare: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mk. 11:9).

In Zechariah 14:16, coming to Christ is symbolized by the nations making the journey to Jerusalem from “year to year” to “celebrate” this feast which pictured the Exodus. Regarding the Exodus, the Psalmist depicts the Israelites’ tabernacling in the wilderness (Ps. 107: 4, 10) as the time when God “brought them out of darkness” (Ps. 107:10, 14). As James Kugel says, the Psalmist describes “the entire Exodus as a going forth from darkness.”[5] Just as the ancient Israelites made their exodus from the darkness of the land of Egypt, all New Covenant believers make a personal exodus out of spiritual “darkness” and into “His marvelous light” (1 Pt. 2:9). When we do this, He tabernacles with us, and we tabernacle in Him.

 

From Year to Year

Zechariah says this happens “from year to year” (Zech. 14:16) in order to telegraph the idea that the Gospel invitation is ongoing and unending. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). The Tree of Life yields its fruit every month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).  In order for a person to experience God’s healing and tabernacling presence, however, a person must embrace Christ. In other words, we must make that journey to Him.  It’s a spiritual journey to the “mountain” that can’t be “touched” (Heb. 12:18) – to the true “Mount Zion,” to the “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).

 

Why the Feast of Tabernacles?

Finally, the question must be asked: of all the Old Testament feasts, festivals and rituals that signified these New Testament realities, why does Zechariah single out the Feast of Tabernacles specifically? Why is it this feast, in particular, that all the “families of the earth” (Zech. 14:17) are required to celebrate? Why did he focus on this one exclusively in conjunction with “the nations” (Zech. 14:18)?

Perhaps one could argue that Tabernacles was a pilgrimage festival and this best fits Zechariah’s theme, but so were Passover and Pentecost.[6]  So this narrows it down, but the question now becomes: of the three pilgrimage festivals, why is Zechariah’s attention drawn solely to this one?  With that in mind, there is one last aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles that provides the answer.

This final feature of the feast comes to us from Numbers 29:12-34. This passage “describes the sacrifices involved in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, called in Hebrew, the Feast of Sukkot (“Booths”). Included in those sacrifices were 70 bulls, a number that far exceeds any other Israelite festival.”[7]

Scholars have long taken note of this number and determined that it can’t be arbitrary. For example, Noga Ayali-Darshan, of the Hebrew University in Israel observes: “This huge number of offerings is striking, especially in comparison with other Pentateuchal festivals, none of which requires more than two bulls per day…”[8]  As Yoel Halevi writes, “The Torah in Numbers 29:12-34 requires the Israelite priests to sacrifice 70 bulls during the great feast… the question standing before most people who read this text is why 70?”[9]

The answer to this question is found early on in the book of Genesis. The number 70 corresponds to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. This is where the Lord divided the nations and “set the boundaries of the people,” according to Moses (Deut. 32:8). Corresponding to this, Paul said that God set these “boundaries” so that people “should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him…” (Acts 17:26-27).  Thus, God divided the original peoples of the world into 70 distinct nations for the purpose of those nations finding their way back to Him.

The 70 bulls sacrificed during the Feast of Tabernacles corresponds to these 70 representative nations, and the Jews viewed the ritual as a means of intercession for those nations. According to Jewish tradition, “these 70 bulls were sacrificed for the sins of the 70 nations descended from the three sons of Noah.”[10]  Rabbi Milgrom put it this way, “You find that on Sukkot, Israel offers to Him [God] seventy bulls as an atonement for the seventy nations.”[11]

Putting this together, the sacrifice of the 70 bulls during the Feast of Tabernacles was a means of intercession for the surrounding Gentile nations. How fitting is it then that Zechariah chose this feast to picture the Gentiles coming to Christ?  Under the New covenant, we don’t need to sacrifice 70 bulls anymore. Jesus is our intercessor now (Rom. 8:34), and He is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). His mediation and intercession for the Gentile nations was pictured during the Feast of Tabernacles, and our coming to Him is pictured as a Journey to Jerusalem to celebrate that feast.  If a people don’t make that journey to Him, Zechariah says no rain will fall upon them (Zech. 14:17).

 

No Rain Will Fall Upon Them

In the previous verses, we saw how imagery from the natural world is used metaphorically to communicate spiritual realities. In verse 4, a splitting mountain represents God’s judgment and the choice a person must make regarding the claims of Christ. In verse 9, a rising mountain symbolizes the preeminence and prominence of Christ as He works in and through His people.  In verse 17, the imagery switches from mountains to rain. The “plague” and “punishment” for those who refuse to celebrate the Feast (i.e., embrace Christ) is that “there will be no rain on them” (Zech. 14:17).

In the Bible, rain is used as a metaphor for God’s presence and His blessings in a person’s life. In modern times, we use “cats and dogs” as a metaphor for “rain.” Sometimes, the Biblical metaphors make far more sense than the modern ones![12] The background for Zechariah’s rain imagery comes from passages like Deuteronomy 32:2 and Hosea 6:3.[13]

 

“Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;

And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!

May my teaching drip as the rain,

My speech trickle as the dew,

As droplets on the fresh grass,

And as the showers on the vegetation.

For I proclaim the name of the Lord;

Ascribe greatness to our God!” (Deut. 32:1-3).

 

“Come, let’s return to the Lord.

For He has torn us, but He will heal us;

He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.

He will revive us after two days;

He will raise us up on the third day,

That we may live before Him.

So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.

His appearance is as sure as the dawn;

And He will come to us like the rain,

As the spring rain waters the earth.” (Hos. 6:1-3).

 

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery captures the Scriptural sentiment of rain as a metaphor: “So vibrant are the feelings of the biblical writers for the refreshment represented by rainfall that we sometimes feel the rain almost as a plant might be imagined to experience it, as we read about ‘ground that drinks up the rain falling on it’ (Heb 6:7).”[14] In order for God’s “rain” to fall upon us, we must embrace His teachings and press on to know Him, as Moses and Hosea indicate.  Bottom line: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn. 14:6). If someone doesn’t make that journey and embrace Christ (Zech. 14:16), no “rain” will fall upon them (Zech. 14:17).

This is not unlike the words of the prophet Amos who spoke of the spiritual drought and famine that comes upon those who disregard God and His Word:

“Behold, the days are coming,’” declares the Lord God.

‘When I will send a famine on the land,

Not a famine of bread or a thirst for water.

But rather for hearing the words of the Lord.

And people will stagger from sea to sea.

And from the north even to the east.

They will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord.

But they will not find it’” (Amos 8:11-12).

 

Similarly, Isaiah says:

 

“So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:

I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;

I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.

I will lay it waste;

It will not be pruned nor hoed,

But briars and thorns will come up.

I will also command the clouds not to rain on it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of armies is the house of Israel,

And the people of Judah are His delightful plant.

So He waited for justice, but behold, there was bloodshed;

For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help” (Isa. 5:5-7).

 

Why is Egypt Singled Out?

In verses 18-19, Egypt is specifically signaled out as being punished with no rain. This has left commentators baffled. For example, Paul Redditt asks, “Why do these verses focus on Egypt? It was hardly the central player in the Levant at any time during the Persian period. Persia’s exercise of control, moreover, generally left religious matters to locals. It is difficult to see any of that context as the stimulus for condemning Egypt.”[15] Understanding the passage in light of AD 70 and the progressive Revelation of the New Testament illuminates this otherwise obscure reference to Egypt.

In the book of Revelation, the old Jerusalem becomes the new Egypt (Rev. 11:8).  This is fitting. In the book of Acts, Stephen tells the first-century Jews that the hearts of their fathers “turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:51) and they were doing just as their fathers had done (Acts 7:51). As noted in a previous installment, old Jerusalem’s new status as spiritual Egypt was also physically pictured in the deportation of many of its inhabitants back to Egypt after the city fell.[16]  As the Old Testament foretold, God’s Old Covenant people eventually returned to Egypt (cf. Deut. 28:68; Hos. 8:13) ­– literally and figuratively. And now, just like a person from Egypt or any other nation on earth, their salvation is found in Christ and Christ alone.

Ethnic Israelites no longer have special covenantal status apart from the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood (Lk. 22:20) – which in and of itself is an echo back to Zechariah (cf. Zech. 9:11) –, but like everyone, they can have special status in God’s eyes through the atoning work of His Son. Jews and Gentiles alike must embrace the embodiment of the Feast of Tabernacles, i.e., Jesus Christ, if the rain of God’s presence and blessing is to fall upon them.

 

Is This Literal Rain?

Understanding these words as referring to literal rain is nonsensical if one takes the time to think it through. This is especially the case with respect to the popular Futuristic approach of our day, which sees Zechariah 14 as yet to be fulfilled.  For instance, imagine a neighborhood with 50 houses lining the street. If 45 of the families in those houses make the trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles but five don’t, is the rain going to strategically miss the other 5 houses? And if those 5 families wanted to get rained on badly enough, why not just go next door and get wet? More to the point, with respect to modern public water systems, why not just turn on the sprinkler?

Even in ancient times, the threat of no literal rain with respect to Egypt, specifically (vs. 18), would have been rather inept. As Robert S. Rayburn puts it: “A contemporary of Zechariah might well have thought of the promise of withholding rain, ‘Well, that wouldn’t hurt Egypt very much.’”[17]  George Klein explains why: “Unlike the other nations that depended on rainfall for their agricultural yield, Egypt relied on irrigation water provided by the Nile (Deut. 11: 10-11; Jer. 46: 7-8).”[18] Consequently, “a threat to withhold rain would have been ridiculous” with regard to Egypt, says G. Michell.[19]  The numerous problems posed by understanding “rain” literally in these verses literally show how its best to understand the reference to “rain” in a non-literal manner.

 

A Bigger Problem than Lack of Rain

As it turns out, the rain problem is only a minor storm compared to the greater difficulty the passage poses for the popular approach of our day. As Kim Riddlebarger points out, “Evil in the Millennial Age” is “A Huge Problem for Premillennarians.”[20]  Basically, if these verses are describing a time after the future second coming of Christ, Zechariah 14:18-19 must refer to the Millennium. Yet, there are nations still in rebellion against God who refuse to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles?

Edward McComiskey captures the dilemma: “No such nations will exist in this time…”[21]  Goerge Klein puts it this way: “In the day when…God finally reigns on earth, it is difficult to imagine sin reemerging to mar God’s creation with such flagrant disobedience to the Lord.”[22]  This leads Klien to conclude: “It is unclear whether the circumstances sketched by Zechariah in v. 17 are hypothetical or actual.”[23]  Extreme literalism literally faces an extreme dilemma at this point. This being so, many opt for the first choice: Zechariah is simply describing a hypothetical situation that could never actually happen in a future utopian state.

For example, McComiskey argues that the drought experienced by the disobedient is merely a “hypothetical allusion,” and even goes so far as to call it a “hypothetical illusion.[24] In other words, it’s just Zechariah imagining what would happen if the “hypothetical nations” could choose to “disobey God’s rule” during the time of “the absolute rule of God.”[25]  This is supposedly despite the fact that Zachariah himself knows fully well that they couldn’t.  If this is true, one wonders why Zechariah would have put so much time and effort into writing about something that’s merely an “illusion” – hypothetically speaking, of course. It’s safe to hypothesize that most are not going to buy the “hypothetical” explanation.

Opting for the second choice, actual fulfillment, another writer proposes a solution wherein resurrected Saints (who cannot sin) will be living alongside of Armageddon survivors (who can sin) during the Millennium.[26] “Those folks will still be able to sin and disobey,” he says, “and if they do, no rain.”[27]  But this just takes us right back to the neighborhood street with the 50 houses and the targeted rainfall. What if an Armageddon survivor lives right next to a resurrected believer?  Again, they can just go next door and get some rain. Understanding the passage literally provides no more help than understanding it hypothetically. At the end of the day, the solution is to understand the passage Scripturally.

 

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture

With Scripture alone as our guide, Zechariah’s messaging is clear. God withholds the rain of His presence from those who don’t embrace His Son as their Lord and Savior. The Feast of Tabernacles was a picture of Jesus and all that He accomplished. He is our intercessor and our high priest, and He tabernacles among those who make the Exodus out of spiritual darkness and into the light of His grace and mercy. The ongoing offer of the salvation provided in and through Him is continual and unending.  All people everywhere can make that journey to Him anytime forever. Zechariah’s imagery in these verses comes to life in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  To interpret this passage in an uber-literal fashion and return to the types and shadows that pictured Christ’s work, is to completely miss the magnitude and magnificence of what is being evoked by the prophet.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles, and Zechariah 14:16-19 is fulfilled when people find their fulfillment in Him.

 

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[1] https://burrosofberea.com/zechariah-14-part-7-zechariah-149-11/

[2] Special thanks to my friend, Kim Burgess, for his input regarding the eschatological aspect of the feast.

[3] https://burrosofberea.com/zechariah-14-part-6-zechariah-146-8/

     [4]D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 322-323.

[5] Kugel, James L. The Bible as it was. Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 321.

[6] https://www.jewfaq.org/holiday5.htm

[7] Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Naked Bible Podcast Transcript, “Episode 206: The 70 Bulls of the Feast of Tabernacles”

(March 13, 2018), p. 1. https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/NB-206-Transcript.pdf

[8] Q: Heiser, Ibid., p. 3.

[9] https://www.hebrewinisrael.net/blog/why-70-bulls/

[10] Gen. 10, Midrash, Numbers Rabbah 21.24; see also: https://israelmyglory.org/article/the-feast-of-tabernacles-in-ancient-times/

[11] Q: Heiser, Ibid., p. 6.

[12] On the possible origins of this somewhat bizarre modern metaphor, see: https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-22408,00.html#:~:text=The%20phrase%20’raining%20cats%20and,fictional%20character%20%22Sam%20Slick%22

[13] Many thanks to my friend, Tim Martin, for pointing out the reference in Deuteronomy 32:2.

[14] Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of biblical imagery. InterVarsity Press, 2010, p. 2333.

[15] Redditt, Paul L. Zechariah 9-14. Kohlhammer Verlag, 2012, p. 139.

[16] https://burrosofberea.com/zechariah-14-part-2-the-siege-of-the-city/

[17] https://www.faithtacoma.org/zech/2014-02-02-pm

[18] Klein, George. Zechariah: 21 (The New American Commentary) (p. 589). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[19] 3H. G. Mitchell, J. M. P. Smith, and J. A. Bewer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Jonah, ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), p. 355; Q: Klein, Ibid.

[20] https://www.kimriddlebarger.com/the-riddleblog/evil-in-the-millennial-age-a-huge-problem-for-premillennarians?rq=evil%20in%20the%20millennial%20age

[21] McComiskey, Thomas Edward, ed. The Minor Prophets: an exegetical and expository commentary. Baker Academic, 2009, p. 1242.

[22] Klein, Ibid., p. 589 (Kindle edition).

[23] Ibid.

[24] McComiskey, Ibid, p. 1242.

[25] McComiskey, Ibid.

[26] https://explainingthebook.com/2019/07/21/zechariah-14-commentary-verses-12-21/

[27] Ibid.