Zechariah: Historical Background

In January of 588 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege against Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 25; 2 Chron. 36; Jer. 52).  For over a year, the Jews suffered the effects of the siege.  As famine set in, morale among the Jews sank.  Due to their weakened condition, plagues of one kind or another began to afflict the people (Jer. 14:12; 27:8,13).  Eventually the food supply was depleted and misery soared high as many were reduced to cannibalism (Jer. 19:9; La. 2:20; 4:10; Ezek. 5:10).  Finally, in July of 587 B.C., the Babylonians broke through the walls and began pillaging and looting the city.  Many Jews were slaughtered.  The city, temple, and walls, were razed to the ground.  Those not killed were taken captive to Babylon, except for some of the peasantry.  All that was left of Jerusalem was ash and rubble.

The Jews taken captive to Babylon remained in bondage throughout the rest of the life of the Babylonian empire.  In 538 B.C., the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians.  Cyrus, king of Persia, reversed the Babylonian practice of repression of nationalism by allowing those nations who had been deported by the Babylonians to return back to their homelands and to worship their own gods.  Cyrus allowed returning captives to take with them the religious objects which the Babylonians claimed as booty.  He also provided them some funds to help rebuild local religious shrines.   He hoped that this generosity would create local governments who were loyal to him. 

The Jews taken captive by Babylon benefitted from Cyrus’ policy and were allowed to return to Jerusalem.  Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem is found in Ezra (1:2-4; 6:3-5).   Over the next century and a half, numbers of Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem and her temple.  The books of Nehemiah and Ezra tell the story. 

Shortly after Cyrus’ edict, a group of Jews led by  Sheshbazaar, of the Davidic line, returned to Jerusalem.  They immediately attempted to rebuild the temple.  However, the situation in Jerusalem was difficult and the group failed to make much progress in securing Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple.  In 520 B.C., a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem led by two men named Zerubbabel, nephew to Sheshbazaar, and Joshua.  Under their leadership, and through the inspiration of the prophets Zachariah and Haggai, the temple was rebuilt although its structure cannot be compared to the grandeur of Solomon’s temple.

Book of Zechariah

The writings of Zechariah include both his preachings and prophecies.  His preachings focused on motivating the Jews to complete the rebuilding of the temple (Zech. 1-8).  The prophecies (Zech. 9-14) deal with the second coming of Christ.

Zechariah’s Prophecies of the Last Days

Zechariah prophesies that in the last days, “Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem.  And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it” (12:2-3).  Jerusalem in the past has been a place of much contention.  Many wars have been fought upon the slopes where that ancient city was built. Zecariah’s prophecy states that Jerusalem shall remain “a burdensome stone for all people.”  

Any who are familiar with the Middle East today are keenly aware how crucial Jerusalem is in the political wranglings which keep that part of the world in a state of constant violence.  I have personally lived in Jerusalem on several different occasions – both as a student and teacher.  I have observed the politics that keep Jerusalem “a burdensome stone.”  In fact, I was teaching at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies when this last siege of violence broke out (beginning at the end of September 2002).  For a month and a half, we, with the students, played dodge ball with that violent and dangerous situation.  Finally, the First Presidency had the students return to America.  We, the faculty, were asked to stay in Jerusalem in hopes that the violence would subside and the student program could continue.  However, the political situation worsened and the violence spread to the point that the lives of the faculty and their families were in harm’s way.  Consequently, the student program was brought to an end and we were brought home.

Since my return from the Middle East, the political situation has worsened.  The prospect of war with Iraq is ominous.  And in the middle of all of this, Jerusalem still remains “a burdensome stone.”  All of this has been foreknown by God.  Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, “As part of his infinite foreknowledge, for example, the Lord would need to have perfect comprehension of all the military and political developments in the Middle East for all time.  Some of these are unfolding only now, bringing to pass a latter?day condition in which Jerusalem, as Zechariah foretold, will be a ‘cup of trembling,’ a ‘burdensome stone for all people.’  ‘All nations’ will be gathered ‘against Jerusalem to battle.’ (Zechariah 12:2,3; 14:2.).”[i]

We shall have to watch and see how the situation in the Middle East deteriorates to the point that Jerusalem is eventually besieged, with “all the people of the earth be gathered together against it.”

Regarding the latter-day siege against Jerusalem, Zechariah uttered several prophecies.  The meanings of these various prophecies are lost when they are viewed separately.  However, a latter-day revelation has pieced them together giving them great meaning.  Note the following prophecies found in Zechariah chapters 12-14:

 

• “In that day shall the LORD defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David; and the house of David shall be as God, as the angel of the LORD before them. And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.  And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” (12:8-10)    

•  “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” (13:6)

•   “Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee.  For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.  Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle.  And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.


  And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.” (14:1-5)

• In a revelation given to Joseph Smith, shortly after he moved to Kirtland, Ohio, the Lord revealed the relationship between these three separate prophecies: “And then shall the Lord set his foot upon this mount, and it shall cleave in twain, and the earth shall tremble, and reel to and fro, and the heavens also shall shake.  And the Lord shall utter his voice, and all the ends of the earth shall hear it; and the nations of the earth shall mourn, and they that have laughed shall see their folly.  And calamity shall cover the mocker, and the scorner shall be consumed; and they that have watched for iniquity shall be hewn down and cast into the fire.  And then shall the Jews look upon me and say: What are these wounds in thine hands and in thy feet?  Then shall they know that I am the Lord; for I will say unto them: These wounds are the wounds with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. I am he who was lifted up. I am Jesus that was crucified. I am the Son of God.  And then shall they weep because of their iniquities; then shall they lament because they persecuted their king” (D&C 45:48-53).

In a proclamation issued by the Quorum of the Twelve (the governing body of the Church at the time) on April 6, 1845, the following was proclaimed to “To all the King’s of the World; To the President of the United States of America; To the Governors of the several States;  And to the Rulers and People of all Nations” regarding these latter-day events:

“There is also another consideration of vast importance to all the rulers and people of the world, in regard to this matter. It is this: As this work [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] progresses in its onward course, and becomes more and more an object of political and religious interest and excitement, no king, ruler, or subject, no community or individual, will stand neutral.  All will at length be influenced by one spirit or the other; and will take sides either for or against the kingdom of God, and the fulfillment of the prophets, in the great restoration and return of his long dispersed covenant people. . . .

“You cannot therefore stand as idle and disinterested spectators of the scenes and events which are calculated in their very nature to reduce all nations and creeds to one political and religious standard, and thus put an end to Babel forms and names, and to strife and war. You will, therefore, either be led by the good Spirit to cast in your lot, and to take a lively interest with the Saints of the Most High, and the covenant people of the Lord, or on the other hand, you will become their inveterate enemy, and oppose them by every means in your power.

“To such an extreme will this great division finally extend, that the nations of the old world will combine to oppose these things by military force. They will send a great army to Palestine, against the Jews; and they will besiege their city, and will reduce the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the greatest extreme of distress and misery.

“Then will commence a struggle in which the fate of nations and empires will be suspended on a single battle.

“In this battle the governors and people of Judah distinguish themselves for their bravery and warlike achievements. The weak among them will be like David, and the strong among them will be like God: or like the angel of the Lord.

“In that day the Lord will pour upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplication, and they shall look upon the Messiah whom they have pierced.

“For lo! he will descend from heaven, as the defender of the Jews: and to complete their victory. His feet will stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which shall cleave in sunder at his presence, and remove one half to the north, and the other to the south; thus forming a great valley where the mountain now stands.

“The earth will quake around him, while storm and tempest, hail and plague, are mingled with the clash of arms, the roar of artillery, the shouts of victory, and the groans of the wounded and dying.

“In that day all who are in the siege, both against Judea and against Jerusalem, shall be cut in pieces; though all the people of the earth should be gathered together against it.

“This signal victory on the part of the Jews, so unlooked for by the nations, and attended with the personal advent of Messiah, and the accompanying events, will change the whole order of things in Europe and Asia, in regard to political and religious organization, and government.

“The Jews as a nation become holy from that day forward; and their city and sanctuary becomes holy. There also the Messiah establishes his throne, and seat of government.

“Jerusalem then becomes the seat of empire, and the great centre and capital of the old world. . . .

“In short the kings, rulers, priests and people of Europe, and of the old world, shall know this once that there is a God in Israel, who, as in days of old, can utter his Voice, and it shall be obeyed. . . .

“While these great events are rolling on the wheels of time, and being fulfilled in the old world, the Western Continent will present a scene of grandeur, greatness, and glory, far surpassing the scene just described.

“The Lord will make her that halted a remnant; and gather her that was driven out and afflicted; and make her who was cast afar off’ a strong nation; and will reign over them in Mount Zion from that time forth and for ever. . . .

“And there shall be his tabernacle, his sanctuary, his throne, and seat of government for the whole continent of North and South America for ever.

“In short, it will be to the western hemisphere what Jerusalem will be to the eastern.

“And there the Messiah will visit them in person; and the old Saints, who will then have been raised from the dead, will be with him. And he will establish his kingdom and laws over all the land.”[ii]

The Splitting of the Mt. of Olives

An understanding of covenant ritual in Old Testament times may give insight into the meaning of the splitting of the Mt. of Olives.  Covenant rituals in the ancient world generally involved cutting and blood.  In some cases animals were cut in half.[1]  Then after reciting the terms of the covenant, the parties making the covenant would pass between the severed parts of the animal – thus identifying themselves with the animal – suggesting that if they did not keep their part of the covenant then what was done to the animal would be done to them: i.


e., they would be killed.  In fact, the proper way to say in Hebrew, “he made a covenant” is “he cut a covenant.”

Recall covenant making or “cutting” in the Old Testament.  On one occasion, the Lord said to Abraham, “I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land [the land of Canaan] to inherit it.”  In response, Abraham asked the Lord, “whereby shall I know that I shall inherit?” (Gen. 15:7-8).  In response, the Lord told Abraham to bring him a certain number of animals.  Abraham secured the animals and then cut them in half, laying the severed halves together.  Why?  Abraham understood that the Lord intended to formalize the promises He had made with Abraham through a covenant ritual.  After the animals were cut in half,  the Lord stated the terms of the covenant: after Abraham’s seed would become slaves in Egypt, then the Lord would bring them out of bondage and give them the land of Canaan.  Then the Lord, represented by a smoking furnace and a burning lamp, passed between the severed animals (Gen. 15:13-18).  That is to say, the Lord covenanted with Abraham that the land of Canaan would be given to his posterity.

In connection with covenant rituals, it is of interest to recall some of the events associated with Israel’s exodus from Egyptian bondage.  Instead of leading the camp of Israel to the promised land “through the way of the land of the Philistines” – the nearest and shortest route – the Lord took them through “the way of the wilderness of the Red sea” (Ex. 13:17-18).  The Egyptian army followed in pursuit.  When Israel arrived at the shores of the Red sea, they were trapped.  However the Lord saved Israel from destruction by parting or splitting the waters of the Red sea and causing Israel to pass through “the midst of the sea” (Ex. 14:26-31).  Paul saw in this story the symbol of the baptismal covenant (1 Cor. 10:1-2).  The symbolism is obvious.  By “cutting” a covenant with the Lord, His people are saved from everlasting destruction.

After the children of Israel were led into the land of Canaan by Joshua and had conquered Jericho and Ai and before proceeding to conquer more of the land, Joshua led the children of Israel to Shechem  (Ex. 8:30-35) where God had first told Abraham that the land of Canaan was the land promised to his posterity (Gen. 12:6-7).  While there, Joshua fulfilled a command given by Moses in his final discourse (Deut. 27-28).  Moses wanted Israel to go to the very place where the promised land was first revealed and enter there into a covenant with God that they would remain faithful to Him and the law.  In so doing, they would secure the Lord’s help in conquering the land of Canaan.

Shechem was situated between two mountains, Mt. Ebal on the north and Mt. Gerizim on the south.  Moses charged Israel that once they arrived at Shechem, they were to set up the Ark of the Covenant between the two mountains (Joshua 8:33).  Then six of the tribes of Israel were to place themselves on Mt. Gerizim while the other six were to ascend Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27:11-13).  Upon large stones, the law of Moses was to be written in the presence of the children of Israel (Deut. 27:1-8; Joshua 8:32).  The law was then to be read to all the Israelites (Joshua 8:33).  This was to be followed by the Israelites renewing their covenant that they would honor the law of Moses.

As part of the covenant renewal, the six tribes on Mt. Gerizim would shout out all the blessings that Israel would receive if they were obedient to the law  (see Deut. 28:1-14).  These included blessings over their cities, fields, crops and the blessing of rain for water.  They were also promised that the land would remain theirs and that the Lord would fight their enemies for them.

The other six tribes would then pronounce the curses (see Deut. 28:15-68) that would result if they were disobedient to the covenant including the loss of their cities, fields, crops and rain.  When their enemies would attack, the Lord would not fight their battles.  The ultimate curse Israel would experience would be the loss of the promised land.  This would be accomplished by the Lord scattering Israel among the gentiles “from the one end of the earth even unto the other.”  Israel would live amongst the gentiles and serve their gods.  In this condition, Israel would continue to wander among these nations  (Deut. 28:64-68).  As the prophet Amos would later prophesy, after the Lord sifts “the house of Israel among all nations” (Amos 9:9) they would “wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8:12).

The covenant renewal at Shechem is comparable to the “cutting” of the covenant between God and Abraham recorded in Genesis 15 where God promised Abraham that his posterity would inherit the land after they were enslaved for four hundred years.  There is no record of animals being cut in half and passed between in the covenant ritual at Shechem.  However it appears that the land of Canaan itself became symbolic of a severed animal.  This was represented by the two mountains that stood adjacent to each other.  The placing of the Ark of the Covenant between the two mountains symbolized God passing between severed animals promising to bless Israel if they were obedient.  Israel identified themselves with the land by standing on the two mountains.  If Israel kept their covenant with God, they would keep the land.  But if they broke the covenant, they, like the two mountains, would be split apart and scattered among all the nations of the earth.

It is well known that Israel struggled keeping the covenant.  Consequently, they often suffered the curses of the broken covenant.  Eventually, the northern kingdom was scattered.  However, in the days of King Josiah (642-609 B.C.), the people of Jerusalem renewed their covenant with the Lord by “cutting” a covenant (2 Ki. 23:1-3).  However, after Josiah died, the people broke the covenant.  This brought the condemnation of the Lord upon them.  Through Jeremiah, the Lord said: “And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof, the princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf;  I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth” (Jer.34:18-20).  This was fulfilled when Babylon sieged and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.


C. 

The Lord promised through the prophets that He would once again gather both Israel and Judah and restore them to the land.  Eventually, the Lord restored the gospel which would begin the gathering process.  Israel, i.e., the northern kingdom, was first to gather to Zion and her stakes scattered through the world while Judah, the southern kingdom, was begin to return to Jerusalem (D&C 133:12-13).  As we have noted, the return of the Jews to Jerusalem would cause tremendous troubles.  The Lord, in Joseph Smith-Matthew, informs us that once the gospel has gone to all the world then the end of the world will come (vs. 31).  The end of the world is directly preceded by a terrible war that would render Jerusalem destroyed (vs. 32).  This is the war prophesied by Zechariah. 

Zechariah’s prophecies tell us that at a point in the war when the Jews have lost most of the “land” of Israel in battle and are about to be destroyed, the Lord will return to this remnant of the covenant people of Abraham to save them from utter destruction.  When he comes, he will stand upon the Mt. of Olives.  A great earthquake will split the Mt. of Olives in two, with half going towards the north and the other towards the south.  This seems to be a reminder of the covenants made with Abraham in Gen. 15 and at Shechem in Joshua 8 and 24!  The Jews will escape their destruction by passing between the two halves of the Mt. of Olives – perhaps symbolizing that only by entering into covenants with the Lord can they be saved (again, note the similarity of this to the Israelites passing through the Red Sea thus being saved from destruction by the Egyptian army).

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