Zechariah 14, Part 8 (Zechariah 14:12-15)
Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr (October 6, 2023)
Ron Cuzzort (Editor)
All Rights Reserved
“Now this will be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples who have gone to war against Jerusalem; their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongue will rot in their mouth. And it will come about on that day that a great panic from the Lord will fall on them; and they will seize one another’s hand, and the hand of one will be raised against the hand of another. Judah also will fight at Jerusalem; and the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be gathered, gold, silver, and garments in great abundance. And just like this plague, there will be a plague on the horse, the mule, the camel, the donkey, and all the cattle that will be in those camps” (Zechariah 14:12-15)
As the New Jerusalem rose up, the Old Jerusalem would be torn down and reduced to rubble. Those inside the city would suffer greatly in their vain attempt to save it. These verses speak to the sad reality that befell them as they clung to that which was fading away rather than embracing the new reality materializing through Jesus Christ. The popular approach of our day doesn’t see it this way, however. Instead of Zechariah’s words describing horrors of the past, today’s pop-prophecy pundits spin these verses as horrors still awaiting our future. Fittingly, the scenario they describe is very much like a futuristic sci-fi thriller – or even a horror movie.
Nuclear War, End Time Zombies, and The Big Screen
In his article “Zechariah Prophecy & The Neutron Bomb,” Marshall Beeber informs us: “This prophecy seemed like a horrific fantasy until the dawn of the nuclear age. In the 1970s Samuel Cohen, a nuclear physicist, invented a new tactical nuclear weapon called the ‘neutron bomb’ which would have the exact effect that Zechariah’s prophecy stated.”
What is extremely relevant for those seeking to truly understand Zechariah’s prophecy in its historical context is just how extremely irrelevant the prophecy would have been to Zechariah’s original audience – if Beeber is correct. More the point, it was apparently irrelevant to anyone living prior to the 1970s!
The real irony here is that those who argue that Zechariah foretells a nuclear war also argue that the New Testament’s time statements merely mean that Jesus could come “at any moment,” rather than meaning that He would come in the first-century. As the popular lingo of our day goes, Christ’s return has been “always imminent.” By this, they mean that Christ could have come back at any time during the last 2000 years – stretching right up to the present.
But how could His return have been “always imminent” before the predicted nuclear wars were even a possibility? How could He have come back before the technology was in place? How could it have happened before the 1970s?
Undaunted by this somewhat obvious contradiction, this remains one of our Dispensational friends’ favorite passages because it seems to play right into the sci-fi sensationalism that characterizes their approach. Dr. Roger Barrier says that Zechariah 14:12 “mirrors the incredible melting of human bodies that results from the intense heat produced by a nuclear bomb.” One popular website opens its treatment of this verse with these words: “Anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark recalls a most incredible scene when the Germans open the Ark of the Covenant and their flesh melts. Eyes and tongues are destroyed, making them unable to see or to speak!” Shelby Hunt thinks the movie World War Z is a better fit than Raiders of the Lost Ark and claims this verse is describing end-time “Zombies” in the last days.
Interpreting the Bible in light of feature film isn’t the best hermeneutical approach. We don’t need movies starring Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt, or even a nuclear explosion to help us figure out this verse. And how would Zechariah’s original audience have even made heads or tails out of it if this were the case? The truth is, there are better ways to understand the passage than catapulting it thousands of years into the future of the original audience, and onto the big screen or news headlines of our own time.
Famine in the City During the War
Zechariah describes the plague as follows: “…their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongue will rot in their mouth.” While Zechariah’s prophecy isn’t about our own day and age, this horrific scene is something that is unfortunately common to every day and age. Consequently, it’s not difficult to figure out what is going on in this verse. The prophet gives a very apt description of the effects of starvation upon the human body.
We’ve all seen pictures of emaciated individuals in the Nazi death camps during the time of Hitler and the forced Ukrainian Famine under Stalin. Sadly, these images align strikingly with Zechariah’s portrayal. During starvation, there are not “enough calories of any sort to keep up with the body’s energy needs,” and the “body’s reserve resources are depleted.” This results in a “wasting away of the body’s tissues” which, among other things, causes the eyes to sink back into the starving person’s eye sockets. Uncoincidentally, this is in fact the sad fate that ensued upon so many who chose to remain inside the doomed city.
As Gary DeMar writes, “There was a famine during the siege of Jerusalem. A woman was found cooking and eating her child. A tactic of warfare is to wait out the enemy by surrounding the adversary and starving them out. ‘Jerusalem was isolated from the rest of the nation, and factions within the city fought over strategies of defense. As the siege wore on, people began dying from starvation and plague. The high priest’s wife, who once basked in luxury, scavenged for crumbs in the streets.’ Their emaciated bodies would look like rotting corpses. Plagues often follow starvation and the stench and disease of literal rotting corpses.”
Likewise, Darrell G. Young informs us: “The Jewish zealots, reacting in opposition to Caligula’s campaign began a revolt against Rome, a revolt which led to Roman legion soldiers from Syria destroying the food stocks of the Zealots and the local Jewish population. The inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem died in great numbers via starvation.” Additionally, it is a commonly known fact that the Jewish Zealots themselves burned stockpiles of dry food within their own city in order to “induce the defenders to fight against the siege, instead of negotiating peace.” This resulted in “many city dwellers and soldiers” dying “of starvation during the siege.”
In short, Zechariah’s description of the plague (Zech. 14:12) matches the results of starvation and malnourishment, and this was unfortunately what awaited many who remained within the city’s walls during that time.
This, however, raises the question of whom the plague was to befall. An English reading of the text seems to indicate that the intended victims were those who went to war against Jerusalem rather than those who went to war for Jerusalem. How can we square this with the text if in fact Zechariah is describing the starvation of those who remained in the city, desperately fighting on its behalf?
Upon Whom Did the Plague Fall?
Even among those who understand this passage in terms of past fulfillment, the tendency is to equate the plague with Jerusalem’s attackers rather than her defenders. In this case, it would have been the Romans, instead of the Jews, who suffered the judgement of Zechariah 14:12. From history, however, we know that the Romans did not experience starvation in the aftermath of the war.
This being so, some see verse 12 as describing the effects of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius upon the Romans, in 79 AD, rather than the starvation of the Jews inside the city, during the siege of 66-70 AD. For example, in his excellent sermon on the book of Zechariah, Phil Kayser says, “The surge was so hot (some volcano experts estimating about 1000 degrees Fahrenheit) that it would have consumed the soft tissues of anyone found within a certain radius before their bodies even hit the ground. This is a literal fulfillment.” While this is entirely plausible and an intriguing take on the passage, is it necessary? Is this the only way to understand Zechariah’s words? Is another approach possible?
Once again, the entire meaning of a verse hinges greatly upon the translators’ choice of words. One single word can completely change the whole dynamic of what’s being said. In this case, it’s The Hebrew preposition עַל (‘al). In English, the passage reads, “this is the plague that will strike those who have gone to war against Jerusalem,” but there is nothing in the raw grammar of the verse that necessitates that this word must mean “against.” Regarding this particular Hebrew preposition, the context determines the nuance of the word, and many times it means the exact opposite of “against.” For example:
If we were to plug any of these possible meanings into Zechariah 14:12, the verse would look like this: “Now this will be the plague with which the LORD will strike all the peoples who have gone to war over Jerusalem,” “on account of Jerusalem,” because of Jerusalem,” or “on behalf of Jerusalem .” In this case, it is not those who are attacking the city upon whom the plague falls, but those who are defending it. In other words, the plague of verse 12 hits Zealots and the people whom they persuaded to stay behind and fight – rather than flee to the mountains as Jesus instructed. These are the ones who would experience the plague of starvation, which would in turn contribute to the internal fighting among those inside the city.
Exodus 18:19 says that “Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel.”
Deuteronomy 4:21 says, “Now the Lord was angry with me, on account of you.”
Deuteronomy 9:18 says, “I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sin.”
Likewise, Ruth 1:19, “The city was stirred because of them.”
Nehemiah 1:6 says, “I am praying before Thee now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel.”
Panic and Conflict Within the City
In the verses that follow, Zechariah says, “And it will come about on that day that a great panic from the Lord will fall on them; and they will seize one another’s hand, and the hand of one will be raised against the hand of another. Judah also will fight at Jerusalem…” (Zech. 14:13-14a). This seems to be a fitting depiction of the infighting within the city as the Zealot factions and their respective followers were at odds with one another. Additionally, these verses tend to rule out nuclear war or even a volcanic eruption. Simply put, there wouldn’t be anyone left alive to fight amongst themselves after such catastrophes. Starvation, on the other hand, would precipitate just such a conflict as the inhabitants of the city fought over whatever remaining food sources could be found.
This is in fact what happened during the siege. Starvation gripped those inside the city while their enemies paraded their wealth roundabout Israel’s decimated capital.
Titus’ Payday Parade
Amid Jerusalem’s internal conflict, Zechariah then says, “…the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be gathered, gold, silver, and garments in great abundance” (Zech. 14:14b). As history would have it, Josephus recounts how the Romans openly flaunted their wealth while “poverty” had “seized” those inside the city “and a great many had died already for want of necessities.” Zechariah’s prophecy and Josephus’ history are very much like mirror images of each other, with Zechariah peering forward to the events of the Roman-Jewish War while Josephus looked back upon them.
The flaunting of the Roman wealth occurred after Jerusalem’s second wall was demolished. At that point in time, Titus resolved to “relax the siege for a little while” in order to “distribute subsistence money to the solders” and “give every one of the soldiers their pay.” This lasted for “four days,” with the Roman soldiers in full battle array. Even the Romans’ horses were adorned “in their fine trappings.” Steve Mason describes this extravaganza as one of the ways in which the “Romans used every opportunity to exploit the appearance of their superbly equipped army, massed in rank and file.” As Mason explains:
“Opportunities were few during a siege, but Josephus describes Titus using such a tactic just after taking Jerusalem’s second wall. Instead of continuing the assault immediately against the city’s innermost, oldest, and strongest wall, he staged an elaborate payday parade over four days. Legionaries were paid three times per year, and this may simply have been the scheduled time, but Josephus portrays it as a tactic to intimidate. The legions parade in full uniform, their polished swords drawn. Even the horses are decked out in armor and shiny decorations, the bright sun giving the whole scene an otherworldly radiance. ‘The broad area in front of the city gleamed with gold and silver, and nothing was more exhilarating than this spectacle to themselves, or more terrifying to the [Judaean] enemy’ (War 5.348–55). The city’s north wall is crowded with spectators craning their necks, and Josephus characteristically reads their minds: ‘dire consternation overtook even the most daring, as they observed this force all massed together and the fineness of the weapons and the good order of the men.’ He has the Jerusalemites admit that they would have surrendered right then and there, had they not gone too far to expect clemency.”
Josephus’ reference to the Romans’ horses being elaborately arrayed is fitting considering Zechariah’s words in verse 15: “And just like this plague, there will be a plague on the horse, the mule, the camel, the donkey, and all the cattle that will be in those camps” (Zech. 14:15). The starvation of those who camped inside the besieged city would have befallen their animals as well as the people themselves, while even the Romans’ horses were in full health and vigor. The contrast could not be greater. The wealth of the “surrounding nations” was “gathered” in “great abundance” (Zech. 14:14) while those inside the city wasted away (Zech. 14:12) along with their animals (Zech. 14:15).
Roman Victory Parades
Apart from Titus’ Payday Parade, a possible further fulfillment of verse 14 might be found in the Roman victory parades following the destruction of Jerusalem itself. Josephus speaks of “Titus’s and Vespasian’s Triumph” in which they “exhibited magnificent shows in all the cities of Syria” and beyond. During these displays, Titus “made use of the captive Jews as public instances of the destruction of that nation.” When he left Antioch and made his way to Zeugma, messengers from “Vologeses king of Parthia” met him “and brought him a crown of gold upon the victory he had gained over the Jews.” Journeying in to Egypt with the captive Zealot leaders, Vespasian and Titus were “crowned with laurel” and “clothed” with “ancient purple garments” as they sat down upon “ivory chairs” accepting shouts of victory.
Josephus says that “it is impossible to describe the magnitude of the shows as they deserve and the magnificence of them all.” He speaks of “the variety of riches” and “rarities of nature,” “admirable and all costly in nature,” and “all brought together” to demonstrate “the vastness of the dominions of the Romans” during these elaborate celebrations of their victory over the Jews. He elaborates, “For there was here to be seen a mighty quantity of silver, and gold, and ivory, contrived into all sorts of things” carried along “in a pompous show” and “running along like a river.” “Some parts,” he says, “were composed of the rarest purple hangings” and accurately represented the embroidery of “the Babylonians.” Josephus speaks of “precious stones,” “crowns of gold,” “very costly materials,” and “purple garments” that were “interwoven with gold.” This all accords quite well with Zechariah’s words: “…the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be gathered, gold, silver, and garments in great abundance” (Zech. 14:14b).
Inserted note by Don K. Preston: To more fully appreciate the grandeur – and horror- of Roman “Triumph” parades, see Scot McKnight’s discussion in his New International Commentary on the New Testament, Colossians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2018), 257-258. The description is both fascinating and troubling, but it helps understand the message of Zechariah and other texts.
Predicted, Fulfilled, and Recorded
All that Zechariah predicted in these verses was fulfilled and then recorded by Josephus after the prophet’s words came to pass in the Roman-Jewish War of the first century. There is no need to watch the latest apocalyptic thriller movie to understand Zechariah’s prophecy, but there is a great need to acquaint ourselves with history in order to understand it. The answers to our questions about Zechariah’s prediction lay in the distant past and not the future – whether that be the near or far future.
Embracing Christ and following His admonition to flee the city would have saved everyone who went down with the city. It would have also made them a part of the new city, the New Jerusalem, which began to rise and expand in the first century and continues to do so unto this day (Zech. 14:10-11). Many chose to flee to the mountains as Jesus instructed, and many chose to stay. Those who made the latter choice faced famine and defeat as their enemies were victorious and prosperous. Zechariah’s words in verses 12-15 speak to these events and Zechariah aptly portrays the contrast between the fate of the old, earthly Jerusalem and the destiny of the new, heavenly Jerusalem depicted in the previous verses.
 The idea of the New Jerusalem “coming down” in Revelation 21:2 speaks to its origin, it is heavenly rather than earthly. Neither the New Jerusalem’s rising in Zechariah 14:10 nor it’s coming down in Revelation 21:2 are physical, directional movements. It is a spiritual reality with its source or origin being heaven itself as it rises, grows, and fills the earth.
 From the progressive revelation of the New Testament, we understand that there were two Jerusalems (Gal. 4:25-27; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 21). This would not have been apparent in Old Testament times and it explains how Jerusalem could simultaneously be presented as being destroyed and rescued at the same time, in passages such as Zechariah 14. The Messianic profile, along with the full disclosure of His work, was kept veiled and cryptic until Jesus’ resurrection (Lk. 24:45). If God’s enemies would have known the plan, the crucifixion and all the ensuing events associated with it would not have happened (1 Cor. 2:6-7). From history we understand that old, earthly Jerusalem was destroyed. The new, heavenly Jerusalem was rescued and remains to this day. God’s New Covenant People are all a part of it. The distinction between the two Jerusalems awaited the further revelation of the New Testament.
 e.g., Matt. 10:23; 16:27-28; 24:34; etc.
 Gary DeMar, “Making Prophetic Sense of Zechariah 14” (Unpublished Work in Progress, October 1, 2020), pp. 55-56.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Jewish%E2%80%93Roman_War; see: Josephus, Wars, 5.1.4.
 On this, see: Josephus, Wars, 5.6.1 zealots were fighting each other even while under siege from the Romans
5.1.4. Three treacherous factions, 5.3.1. Zealots tortured innocent temple worshippers, 5.8.1 Zealots threatened death, cut throats of those who wanted peace. Many thanks to Patricia Bailey, of https://preteristpapers.com/, for these references in Josephus.
 Wars, 5.8.2.
 Josephus, Wars, 5.8.1.
 Wars, 5.9.1.
 Wars, 5.9.2
 Wars, 5.9.1
 Steve Mason, A History of the Roman Jewish War: AD 66-74 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 190.
 Wars, 7.5.1 ff.
 Wars, 7.5.1.
 Wars, 7.5.2.
 Wars, 7.5.3.
 Wars, 7.5.4.
 Wars, 7.5.5.
 As Doug Wilson writes, “Remember that the New Jerusalem is the Christian Church” (When the Man Comes Around: A Commentary on the Book of Revelation [Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2019], p. 254).
Source: Don K. Preston