By Edward Dennett
Before entering upon this chapter it may help the reader to be reminded of a special feature or two of the prophetic writings. This chapter is undoubtedly connected with Zech. 9, but it would be a mistake to suppose that on this account there is a direct sequence in the narration of events. The last verse of the preceding chapter presents, however briefly, the blessing, earthly blessing, which flows from the advent of the Messiah in His kingdom, and thus in a measure reaches down to the end, or rather gives the general character of His peaceful reign. The first verse of this chapter goes back to a time prior to the prosperity and happiness there described. And this is a constant characteristic of all the prophets. Pursuing their theme in some one aspect, they proceed until they have reached the consummation looked for, and then, returning, they will give details or other aspects of the subject. The reader therefore must be on his guard, or otherwise, expecting chronological order, he will be landed in perplexity and confusion. But, if he reads with attention, he will find that there are always landmarks to be discovered — the great central facts of prophecy, round which the details are grouped, or from which certain known consequences ensue, which will guide him through what otherwise might seem an inextricable maze, and enable him to comprehend the object, meaning, and scope of the prophetic word. Then also the warning of the apostle Peter is to be remembered, "that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation"; that is, as another has written, it "is not explained by its own meaning as a human sentence. It must be understood by and according to the Spirit that uttered it. The 'prophecy' is, I take it, the sense of the prophecy, the thing meant by it. Now this is not gathered by a human interpretation of an isolated passage which has its own meaning and its own solution, as if a man uttered it; for it is a part of God's mind, uttered as holy men were moved by the Holy Ghost to utter it."1 The remembrance of these principles will keep the reader in dependence, and thus in a condition to be guided and taught, and, holding the imagination in check, enable him to receive the thoughts of God.
The prophet commences with an exhortation to the believing remnant. "Ask ye of the Lord rain in the time of the latter rain; so the Lord shall make bright clouds,2 and give them showers of rain, to every one grass in the field." (v. 1) It had been the original promise of Jehovah to Israel, that if they would "hearken diligently unto my commandments … to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle," etc. (Deut. 11:13-15.) But Israel, by their disobedience and departure from their God, had forfeited this promise, and God in chastisement had withheld both the early and the latter rain. Now, however, inasmuch as it was His thought to do well unto Jerusalem and to His people, He encourages them to seek His face for a return of their former blessing. He was minded to bless them now out of His own pure grace; for the restored remnant, or rather the believing remnant that shall be in those days, will have no claim upon Him, only He would have them learn their dependence upon Him for the blessing they sought, and thus be brought into a condition to receive it. This is surely a lesson for all dispensations. God never withholds from His people except to draw out their sense of need, and to teach them that He alone is the source whence their need can be supplied. If therefore they will but ask the Lord He will give. It is thus He invites the prayers of Israel; and remark, that they were to ask rain in the time of the latter rain, at the season when it should be expected. If withheld, this should be only a provocative to their prayers, and, thus praying, they should be heard, and Jehovah would make lightning, and give them showers of rain to every one grass (or the green herb) in the field.
It is, however, of great interest to remark the omission of all reference to the early rain, the prophet only speaking of the time of the latter rain. The reason is, that the time of the early rain had for ever passed away. God sent the first rain on the day of Pentecost; and while many individual hearts were opened to receive it, the nation refused its blessed vivifying influence. And on that very occasion Peter spoke of another — even the latter rain — in the words of the prophet Joel, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." (Acts 2:17-18.) This is the period of which Zechariah speaks, as he urges the people to wait on the Lord, even as the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the descent of the Holy Ghost, for the fulfilment of His word.
Zechariah then contrasts the impotence of heathen vanities with Jehovah's power, in allusion to the time when God's people, having turned away from Him, had sought help from idols. "For," says he, "the idols have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie, and have told false dreams, they comfort in vain: therefore they went their way as a flock, they were troubled, because there was no shepherd." (v. 2.) Jeremiah refers to the same thing when he says, "Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? art not thou he, O Lord our God? therefore we will wait upon thee: for thou hast made all these things." (Jer. 14:22.)3 Israel then in their unbelief had turned to idols and their prophets for succour, but found no relief or comfort; and the prophet depicts them as going their way as a flock, in their disappointment, troubled, because there was no shepherd — none to lead and to tend them; and thus since they had turned away from God, they were cast now in their sins upon their own resources. Jehovah saw and pitied their condition, even as we read of the Lord Jesus, that "when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd." (Matt. 9:36.) He pitied the flock, but His anger was "kindled against the shepherds, and I punished the goals: for the Lord of hosts hath visited his flock the house of Judah, and hath made them as his goodly horse in the battle." (v. 3). It was thus the shepherds He held as chiefly responsible for the condition of the flock.4 In Ezekiel this principle is directly asserted: "Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand." (34:10) It is a solemn thing therefore to occupy a place of responsibility, of lead, among the saints of God. Everyone is individually responsible for his own state, but the leaders are held accountable for the state of the assembly; and it is on this account, as in our chapter, that God's anger is kindled against the shepherds when they lead astray the flock of God.5 In addition to the shepherds, the he-goats (they are really goats, though claiming to be sheep, if not shepherds) are mentioned as being punished. Ezekiel also speaks of these, and distinguishes them from the rams; and from Matthew 25, where the Lord separates the sheep from the goats, we should gather that these, though with the people of God, are not really such, but those who have pushed themselves into places of prominence and dignity,6 which they use for their own selfish and evil ends.
There is an instructive play upon the words here used. "I visited upon the goats, for the Lord of hosts hath visited His flock the house of Judah." The time therefore of the judgment upon the shepherds and upon the he-goats (if indeed these be not one and the same class — claiming to be shepherds while they were not even sheep) is the time of God's interposition on behalf of the house of Judah. There may well have been a present application of these words in the days of the prophet, but their full accomplishment can only take place at the return of the Lord to Zion. This is the more certain from the last clause in the verse, where Judah becomes Jehovah's goodly horse in the battle, an expression which links itself as to time with verses 14-16 in the previous chapter.
This leads, in the next place, to a statement of the pre-eminent place which Judah will have in the kingdom, and also of their victorious power in Jehovah's battles. "Out of him came forth the corner, out of him the nail, out of him the battle bow, out of him every oppressor together. And they shall be as mighty men, which tread down their enemies in the mire of the streets in the battle: and they shall fight, because the Lord is with them, and the riders on horses shall be confounded." (vv. 4, 5.) That the sovereign favour of God had been bestowed on Judah is declared in that Messiah should spring from that tribe; for the two expressions, "the corner" and "the nail," are both to be referred to Him. The word "corner" indeed is the same as that found in Isaiah, where we read, "Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner [stone]."7 (Isa. 28:16.) In Isaiah also is to be found the interpretation of the term "nail." Speaking of one who was taken up as a figure of the Messiah, Jehovah says, "And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father's house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house," etc. (Isa. 22:23-24.) There can be therefore no doubt as to the significance of these figurative terms. The next, however, the battle-bow, which is also said to come out of Judah, will refer to Judah itself, to what Judah will be when taken up by Jehovah for His service in conflict. The One who comes out of Judah, God's anointed King, will employ that people as His battle-bow8 when He goes forth to "strike through kings in the day of His wrath." (Psalm 110) And in this fact, we judge, must be sought the explanation of the following clause, "Out of Him every oppressor together." It is an abrupt transition to the effect of Jehovah thus using Judah as His "weapons of war"; viz.., that the oppressors of His people should for ever be expelled, according to His promise in chapter 9, "No oppressor shall pass through them any more" (v. 8), so that, as the Lord had also spoken by the mouth of Isaiah, "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders." (60:18.)
The next verse unites this last expression with the close of verse 3, as showing how the victory is gained over their oppressors through the irresistible might which flows to them from the presence of the Lord. It is He who makes them as mighty men, and enables them to tread down their enemies in the mire of the streets in the battle. (Compare 2 Samuel 22:43, and Micah 7:10) With the shout of the King in their midst, His people are invincible; for, animated with the courage which His presence inspires, they fight, and the riders on horses are confounded. It is a description of the Lord Himself leading forth His people to battle, when He commences to put down all rule, and all authority and power, and to reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:24-25), though here it is in special reference to the salvation of His people from the hand of their enemies. The period, therefore, is that which dates from His appearing in glory and His return to His dwelling-place in Zion.
As consequent upon the subdual of Messiah's enemies, through the instrumentality of Judah, we find, in the next place, the restoration of all Israel, and their blessing in the land. "And I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph, and I will bring them again to place them; for I have mercy upon them: and they shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am the Lord their God, and will hear them. And they of Ephraim shall be like a mighty man, and their heart shall rejoice as through wine: yea, their children shall see it, and be glad; their heart shall rejoice in the Lord." (vv. 6, 7.)
The exactitude of the expressions used will scarcely fail to strike the intelligent reader. Thus, I will "strengthen" the house of Judah, and I will "save" the house of Joseph, and "bring them again" etc. Judah would already be in the land before the appearing of their Messiah, and being delivered, He would "strengthen" them. The house of Joseph, Ephraim, i.e. the ten tribes,9 will still be scattered among the nations, and undiscovered, spite of modern pretensions, until after the return of Christ to Zion, and hence the terms employed in our passage.10 It is indeed the declar ation of God's unchangeable purposes of grace towards His ancient people, revealing the depth of His long-suffering and immutable love, in spite of their persistent transgressions and sins, and hence saying, "I have mercy upon them," according as we read in Hosea, "I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God." (Hosea 2:23.) Then, when once more the objects of Jehovah's mercy, in the beautiful and tender language here employed, "They shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am the Lord their God, and will hear them." After, therefore, Jehovah has returned to His dwelling-place in Zion, He will perform this His word concerning all Israel. (See Rom. 11:26 - 29) Restored again to their own land, they will abound, together with their children, in joy and gladness in the Lord. Their heart shall rejoice as through wine, the elevated character of their joy being thus indicated; and then, to show that it is something more than mere natural gladness, it is added, "Their heart shall rejoice in the Lord," in Jehovah their God, who had sought them out in all the places where they had been scattered, brought them up again to their own land, and made them joyful in His own presence and blessing. And it is also touchingly said, "Their children shall see it, and be glad" — glad in the gladness of their parents, and thus the reflectors of their parents' joy.
In the next verse the prophet returns, and describes as the Lord's mouthpiece how they will be gathered, and how their restoration will be effected, and this extends to the end of the chapter. "I will hiss for them, and gather them; for I have redeemed them: and they shall increase as they have increased." (v. 8.) The word "hiss" is often used in Scripture to express the idea of summoning (see, for example, Isa. 5:26; Isa. 7:18), and teaches here that the Lord in His own way will arrest the attention of His scattered people, make His mighty call to reach their hearts, and at the same time create in them a response to His word before He works out their deliverance. The ground of His action is contained in the words, "I have redeemed them." just as the blood of the Passover Lamb in Egypt was the all-efficacious ground on which God acted to deliver His people from Egypt, to bring them through the wilderness, and to put them in possession of Canaan, so the redemption, which has been wrought out through the death of Christ, will be the foundation on which God will work in rescuing His people from the hands of their enemies, and in re-gathering them to the land of their fathers. And when they are once again settled in their land they shall increase as they have increased. Jacob had said, "Joseph, is a fruitful bough," as he had said before, that Ephraim should become "a multitude of nations;" and Moses had also spoken, "They are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh," both alike predicting that increase in numbers should characterise Ephraim, and Jehovah now says, "They shall increase" — i.e. when restored under His sway and kingdom — "as they have increased," as they had done, that is, in former days.
The next verse would seem to take us back a few steps. "I will sow them among the people: and they shall remember me in far countries; and they shall live with their children, and turn again." (v. 9.) The "people" should be rendered "peoples;" i.e. nations. Jehovah would sow his people among the nations; and it is said that the word "sow" is never used in the sense of scattering, and hence that it must mean for increase or blessing. The similar expression in Hosea, "I will sow her unto me in the earth," with its connection, bears out this statement. If so, it will signify that, previous to God's interposition to regather the ten tribes, He will cause them to prosper and multiply where they are among the nations, and, at the same time, begin to act in their hearts just as He did with His people in Egypt, and so cause them to remember Him in far countries. As a consequence of this it is said, "They shall live with their children, and turn again." It is worthy of remark that this is the second time the children are mentioned in this chapter, even as the reader knows that the children of His people are ever the objects of God's tender care and solicitude. Moses insisted, as having the mind of God, that the children must accompany their parents out of the land of Egypt; and now in this second "redemption" Jehovah promises that the children shall live with their parents, and shall turn again — turn again first to God, and then with their faces towards Zion in their homeward march. (Compare Jer. 31:7-9; Ezekiel 6:9.)
The countries are now specified whence Israel is to be brought — viz., Egypt and Assyria (see Isa. 11:10-16) — and then it is said, "I will bring them into the land of Gilead and Lebanon and Place shall not be found for them." (v. 10) The land of Gilead, the reader may recall, was on the cast of the Jordan, and was within the territory of the two and a half tribes — Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. Lebanon was on the cast, and is here used to designate the territory occupied by the remainder of the ten tribes, so that the promise is, they should be settled again in their old habitations. And when there, place should not be found for them, owing to their increase in number and prosperity as before promised. (v. 8; compare Isaiah 49:20.)
If, however, Israel shall be restored, judgment will fall upon the nations amongst whom they have been scattered. The prophet thus says, "And he shall pass through the sea with affliction, and shall smite the waves in the sea, and all the deeps of the river shall dry up: and the pride of Assyria shall be brought down, and the sceptre of Egypt shall depart away." (v. 11) A few words are necessary, first of all, to elucidate the meaning of the expressions employed. In the translation as thus given, the word "with" has been added before "affliction" as an explanation. It simply reads in the Hebrew, "He shall pass through the sea, affliction," as if affliction were the sea figuratively intended.11 If "the sea" is a figurative term, it will apply to the nations (compare Rev. 17:15) that have oppressed Israel; and then the following words, "And shall smite the waves of the sea," will signify that Jehovah Will at this period step in, when the nations rise up against and threaten to engulf His people, and smite the proud waves of their power, in order to effect their deliverance. And this, in our judgment, is the interpretation of the passage; while at the same time there is undoubtedly an allusion to the past history of Israel, when God smote the proud waters of the Red Sea and brought His people through on dry land. This is the more certain from the next clause: "And all the deeps of the river shall dry up;" for "the river" in Scripture, with one exception (Daniel 12:5), always means the Nile.
The two references ("the sea" and "the river") speak then of judgment, and especially upon Egypt; for the drying up of the Nile would involve the entire deprivation of her sources of life and fertility; so that consequent on such a disaster, dependent as she is upon the waters of her river, the whole land would, in an incredibly short space of time, become a barren wilderness. The pride of Assyria is to be brought low, and the sceptre of Egypt shall depart away. As to the former, Isaiah also speaks, "I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders" (Isa. 14:25); and also as to the latter, "And the Lord shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with his mighty wind shall he shake his hand over the river, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dry-shod. And there shall be an highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt." (Isa. 11:15-16.) And Ezekiel says, "There shall be no more a prince in the land of Egypt." Assyria and Egypt, the enemies of God's people on the north and on the south, shall thus fall under judgment when the Lord brings out His scattered people from under their power; and not only these two, for these are named — these historical enemies of Israel — as symbolic also of all the nations that will hold Israel captive. (See Isaiah 11:11) Then it will be seen that no weapon formed against Israel shall prosper; and, moreover, that when Messiah shall take their cause in hand, He will judge among the nations, "he shall fill the places with dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries" (Psalm 110), in connection with the salvation of Israel from the ends of the earth.12
In the last verse we have again, in few words, the happy condition of restored Israel. "And I will strengthen them in the Lord, and they shall walk up and down in His name, saith the Lord." (v. 12.) Now they will learn that their strength is not in their armies, or in their alliances, but in the Lord alone (cp. Eph. 6:10); and at liberty before him, they will walk up and down, not to please themselves, or to serve their own ends, but as His servants and representatives, and thus in His name. And this, as we gather from Micah, is what will distinguish them as the Lord's people. "For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." (Micah 4:5.) Together with their restoration, therefore, their hearts will be changed, according to the terms of the new covenant, "I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people." (Heb. 8:10)
1) Note to J. N. D.'s new translation On 2 Peter 1:20.
2) Or lightnings, as in margin. See Jer. 10:13; Ps. 135:7.
3) For a constant and instructive contrast between Jehovah and idols, as showing the tendency of Israel to idolatry, the reader may consult Isaiah 40 - 48.
4) In the same way in the letters to the seven churches, in Rev. 2, 3, the angels of the several assemblies are charged with their sin and condition.
5) Read the whole of Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23:1-4 On this subject.
6) We infer this from the fact of their being he-goats, and as such leaders, and from Isaiah 14:9, where the term "chief ones" should rather be, as in margin, "great goats."
7) The French translation before cited renders it "la pierre angulaire," and the English Revised Version "corner stone."
8) The reader will remember that the term battle-axe is used in the same way in Jeremiah 51:20 of Israel.
9) Ephraim is constantly used in the prophets to designate the northern kingdom after the division took place during the reign of Rehoboam. It is called indifferently the kingdom of Israel or Ephraim, in contradistinction from Judah.
10) It is astonishing how conscientious interpreters, who are ignorant of dispensational truth, can persuade themselves that such scriptures as these have already been fulfilled. For example, one, whose uprightness and piety can scarcely be doubted, writes, "With regard to them (Ephraim), human victory retires out of sight, though doubtless, when their wide prison was broken at the destruction of the Persian empire, many were free to return to their native country, as others spread over the west in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome; and so some may have taken part in the victories of the Maccabees." As if "free to return" and "may have taken part in the victories of the Maccabees" answered to the promise, "I will bring them again to place them." (See also v. 8.) As though feeling this, our author adds, "Yet not victory, but strength, gladness beyond natural gladness, as through wine, whereby the mind is exhilarated above itself; and that, lasting, transmitted to their children, large increase, holy life in God, are the outlines of the promise." And yet he has not the courage to draw the conclusion that, therefore, the promise has not yet been fulfilled!
11) The French version before cited renders in a note, "Mer d'affliction"; while in the text it gives "Il passera par la mer, [par] l'affliction." The Revised Version has, "He shall pass through the sea of affliction"; while the Septuagint, taking the word "affliction" in the sense of narrow or restricted, reads, "en thalasse stene."
12) The express statement here as to the sceptre of Egypt, as well as the passage cited from Ezekiel, are very significant as to the future of this interesting land. The intelligent reader will at once perceive that the place and status of Egypt will not depend upon the political plans and treaties of statesmen, but solely and entirely upon the purposes of God. This fact should guard the Christian from being drawn away into other thoughts by political speculations.