Zechariah 14, Part 5: The Flight to the Mountains
Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr (September 15, 2023)
Ron Cuzzort (Editor)
“And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach Azel. 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” (Zechariah 14:5 ESV).
Previous installments of this series have noted the correspondences between Zechariah 14 and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Perhaps nothing highlights the connection between these two passages more than the theme of the flight to the mountains. Amidst the calamities that come upon Jerusalem when the city is taken (Zech. 14:2), God’s people are to flee to the valley of His mountains (Zech. 14:5). Similarly, Jesus told His first-century listeners:
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are the days of vengeance, to fulfill as all that is written” (Lk. 21:21-22).
The flight to the mountains, as the Christians exited the city and the judgments that were befalling it, is reminiscent of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and the judgments that befell it. In this sense, Jesus and Zechariah are both very much describing a new exodus event. As Milton Terry wrote, “As God signally interposed to rescue His chosen people at the beginning of their national history, and both their exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the promised land opened for them a pathway through the waters (Exod. xiv, 22; Josh. Iii, 14-17), so in the great day of their messianic salvation will He cleave the mountains for their help (comp. Hab. Iii, 6).”
The New Exodus
Seeing the departure from earthly Jerusalem as a new exodus makes sense considering the progressive revelation of the New Testament. In the book of Revelation, John says Jerusalem is “spiritually called Sodom and Egypt” (Rev. 11:8). Old Jerusalem had become the new Egypt, and the members of the New Jerusalem were making the new exodus. Peter J. Leithart paints a wonderful picture of the exodus theme being depicted in the words of Jesus and Zechariah.
Luke 21 also describes a siege of Jerusalem (v. 20), an escape for the faithful (v. 21), and a coming of the Lord (v. 27). Like Zechariah 14, Jesus prophesies the collapse of a universe (v. 25). Luke is describing a series of events in the first century (vv. 32-33), the events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple in AD 70. In the light of Zechariah 14, however, we can look at this incident in a different way. These are ‘days of vengeance’ (v. 22) against those who attack the disciples of Jesus, but these events are also a new exodus, a deliverance of the future Israel. When the disciples of Jesus follow His instructions and flee Jerusalem, they become the streams of water flowing to the nations. The Lord’s coming is a moment of judgment and destruction, but also a moment of deliverance, the beginning of the discipling of the nations.
The description of the original disciples’ flight from Jerusalem as “streams of water flowing to the nations” is somewhat reminiscent of a passage in Josephus. According to Josephus, “many of the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink.” The Church historian, Eusebius, describes the exodus from Jerusalem like this:
The whole body, however, of the Church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella. Here those that believed in Christ, having removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had entirely abandoned the royal city itself, and the whole land of Judea; the divine justice, for their crimes against Christ and his Apostles finally overtook them, totally destroying the whole generation of these evildoers from the earth.
Just as their ancestors fled the slavery and oppression of Egypt, these first-century Jews fled the slavery and oppression of the crumbling Old Covenant system (cf. Acts 15:10; Gal. 5:1). As Rabbi Julie Zupan writes, regarding the first Exodus: “In the Book of Exodus (3:8), God promises to take the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a ‘good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which literally means ‘narrow places.’ In other words, a life of slavery is constricted and oppressive, while living in freedom in Israel is wide and spacious. A land so fertile that it flows with milk and honey stands in contradiction to the place of oppression.” In the New Exodus, Jesus’ first-century followers demonstrated their faith in Him, and the freedom that He offers, by obeying His command to flee to safety in Pella when they saw Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.
Safety at Pella
Pella is a suitable location for pinpointing Jesus’ admonishment to flee from Judea and to the mountains (Lk. 21:21-22). As J. Julius Scott, Jr. points out, “The site of ancient Pella lies among rugged hills and sharp valleys in the modern country of Jordan, about 2.5 miles east of the Jordan River and 17 miles south of the Sea of Galilee.” Craig Koester concurs, stating: “it is worth noting that Pella lies in the foothills of the Transjordanian highlands and could have fulfilled this requirement.” Archeologist Mark Wilson believes that the phrase, “the mountains,” is such a precise description of Pella’s situated location that Jesus’ terminology could have been a nuanced reference to the very site itself. Wilson writes:
Jesus, while looking over the temple mount in Jerusalem shortly before his death, prophesied that its beautiful stones would be thrown down within a generation. He warned that the residents should flee Jerusalem to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies surrounding the city. Jesus’ admonition is found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:15–22; Mark 13:14–20; Luke 21:20–24). Perhaps Jesus visited Pella during his visit to the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) and Perea (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and recalling its secure location, cryptically referred to it in this prophecy.
In Koester’s article on the topic, he goes on to highlight the fact that Luke 21:21-22 bears such a close resemblance to the flight to Pella that skeptics and critics have argued that Luke wrote his words after the fact. “Many scholars assume,” writes Koester, “that Luke has revised Mark 13:14-16 to reflect events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in A.D.” For those who accept the authority of and divine inspiration of Scripture, there is no need to see Luke’s words as vaticinium ex eventu. Jesus foretold of the events, Luke recorded His words, and within a generation it all came to pass (Lk. 21:32). Jay Rogers does a nice job putting the historical pieces together:
…the Flight to Pella most likely took place in the autumn of AD 66 after the Jews had won a short-lived victory and had driven the Roman troops back to Caesarea. There the Roman general Cestius Gallus sent word to Nero of the defeat and promptly committed suicide. At this point, the early Christians fled the city, but the Jews rejoiced thinking God was favoring them in victory over the Romans. This peace lasted until the following year until the spring of AD 67, when Roman legions under Vespasian and Titus invaded Judea from the north and south. This campaign began in April of AD 67 and lasted another three-and-a-half years until the destruction of Jerusalem in September of AD 70.
When Jesus’ followers saw the events of the war beginning to unfold all around them, they knew the exodus was here. The words of both Zechariah and Jesus were finally coming to pass, and it was time for them to flee to the mountains. Like their forefathers leaving Egypt centuries before, they would exit the city that had spiritually become Egypt and find redemptive freedom (cf. Exod. 6:6; Lk. 21:28). Only this time, they would enter the last and final phase of redemptive history. Unlike the old and temporary covenant, the new and permanent covenant would not be weighed down with ritual, repetition, and the return of their sins. This is telegraphed by Zechariah’s next phrase in Zechariah 14:5.
Where or What is Azel?
Zechariah says that the valley of God’s mountains, where their flight takes place, “shall reach to Azel.” According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, “There is no clear consensus regarding the location of Azel.” A lexical search on the word will yield a vague answer: “a place near Jerusalem, site presently unknown.” Scholars simply do not know what to do with this word.
Goerge Klien says, “The precise meaning of ‘Azel’ is unclear” and “complicated by the fact that this is the only occurrence of this word in the Old Testament .” Kline continues: “…the noun Azel represents a place name whose precise location has eluded interpreters.” Mark J. Boda notes that there is “much speculation about the location of Azel.” Anthony R. Petterson simply says, “the location of ‘Azel’ is “unknown.” Paul L. Redditt takes it a step further and concludes, “certainty about its meaning or location is impossible.”
All in all, pinning down the exact location of Azel has left commentators frustrated and confused. Perhaps they’re looking in the wrong “place,” however, because it isn’t really a “place,” per se? At this point, the prophet’s messaging is not as much topographical as it is theological. Zechariah’s words here transcend literal geography and rise to the level of cosmic geography – based upon the structure of Israel’s festivals.
The Festal Pattern in Zechariah 14
As Mike Bull writes, “The key to interpreting the prophecy is its structure. It follows a formula which is second nature to Jewish people: the process of Israel’s annual feasts. If they had their wits about them, the Jews would hear these words and be able to say, ‘I see what you did there.’ Once they are recognized as literary art, these words are not only completely intelligible, they are also brilliant and beautiful.” With this in mind, Zechariah 14 comes to a close by highlighting the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech. 14:17-19). Preceding the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel’s ritual calendar is the Day of Atonement, and this is where the reference to Azel ties in.
Regarding this word, Bull makes this observation: “The mention of Azel possibly links this event with the ‘Azel’ goat on the Day of Atonement.” The connection between Zechariah’s “Azel” and the “Azazel” goat on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8, 10) is perceptive since “many commentators believe that Azazel originates from Azel,” according to Andrew Paul Ward. In fact, Tom Douglas shows that “Azazel” (Lev. 16) is simply “another form” of the word “Azel” (Zech. 14). The reference to Azel, consequently, would make a conceptual connection to the Day of Atonement in the mind of Zechariah’s original audience.
The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)
On the Day of Atonement, in Leviticus 16, two male goats were reserved for the atonement rituals (Lev. 16:5). One goat was sent aside for Yahweh, the other was set aside for Azazel (Lev. 16:8). The goat set aside for Yahweh was killed, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle (Lev. 16:15). In the ritual ceremony, Israel’s sins were transferred to the second goat (Lev. 16:21-22), commonly called the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat then carried the people’s sins away deep into the wilderness – “to Azazel” (Lev. 16:10). The problem was, those sins always came back. As Micheal Heiser put it, the Day of Atonement was “essentially a reset button,” and the Israelites had to reboot the whole thing and start over again every year (Lev. 16:29-32).
With Jesus, there is no “reset button.” Christ’s atoning work on the cross was a “finished” work, once and for all (Jn. 19:30). Zechariah says that the valley carved out by Jesus, when He splits the Mount of Olives in two (Zech. 14:4), will “reach to Azel” (Zech. 14:5). This is the theological messaging behind the imagery Zechariah is using: the finished work of Christ was going to cut all the way through to the other side where our sins were taken. His atoning work was that complete and that comprehensive – it reached to Azel. When we put our faith and trust in the finished work of Christ, He carries our sins away, and those sins never return.
The Lord Comes with All His Holy Ones
The conclusion of the Zechariah 14:5 says, “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” This is similar to the language of Jude 14 and the Lord coming “with many thousands of His holy ones,” which Jude makes applicable to his readers’ own day and time. Jude’s prophecy pertained to a judgment of “these men” (Jude 14) who had “crept in unaware” (Jude 4) among the assemblies of first-century believers (Jude 12). Likewise, Jesus speaks of His cloud-coming in judgment, accompanied by His angels (Matt. 24:30-31), before the first-century generation passed away (Matt. 24:34). Earlier, He had told His Disciples that He would come “in the glory of His Father with His angels” before they had all passed away (Matt. 16:27-28). Zechariah’s words coincide with the language of Jesus’ judgment-coming in the first century. Jesus came in judgment with His angles – with all His holy ones. There is no need to catapult the words of Zechariah, Jesus or Jude into the far-distant future.
Following the Path
Following the path of the verses that precede it, Zechariah 4:5 mirrors Jesus’s Olivet Discourse and the events that were to befall the first-century generation (Matt. 24:34, Mk. 13:30; Lk. 21:32). This includes everything from the coming of the Lord with His holy ones to the flight to the mountains. Jesus’ original followers in Judea did in fact flee the city, embarking upon the New Exodus, when the Romans began their assault. As such, they were the members of the first generation of believers whose sins never return because of their confidence in Christ’s competed work. Jesus carved the path, they walked the path, and we follow in their footsteps when we embrace Him as our Lord and Savior. Jesus’ original followers in Judea paved the way for us by ensuring that Christianity didn’t go down in flames with Jerusalem when they fled the city, just as Jesus had instructed them.
In the next installment, we will continue to pave our way through the passage with a look at the “unique day” and “living waters” of verses 6-8.