Divine sovereignty and human suffering (Zechariah 14:1-5)

Puzzled over how to understand God’s sovereignty? It’s the hope of a suffering world.

Zechariah’s final chapter extends astounding hope in a puzzling framework.

The book started with a call and a promise: Return to me, and I will return to you (1:3). Some exiles returned to keep faith. They built a house for their heavenly sovereign to live among them. Priests resumed their work of serving God, and Zechariah promised the return of the God-appointed king, lowly and riding on a donkey (9:9).

But centuries rolled by, and they remained oppressed, under empire after empire. Were the nations too strong for God’s people? Would their king never be restored? Zechariah offers a counter-narrative: the reason why the Davidic kingship failed was that God had sacked the shepherds (13:7, as in Chapter 11).

The kingship had failed, not God’s sovereign authority. Restoration required only the two components of 1:3, but now they’re reversed as God takes the initiative and they respond: I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’ (13:9).

That introduces the final chapter. Zechariah isn’t looking back to the day of King David. He’s looking forward to the day of the Lord (14:1), the day when YHWH reigns. That’s the core of his final vision: The Lord will be king over the whole earth (14:9).

But Zechariah’s vision is not yet the end of all war and peace for all nations. YHWH leads, but the struggle is not over. To understand his impressionistic image, we must stand where he stood, appreciating the role God gave his people in the Old Testament story:

Zechariah 14:1-2 (NIV)
1 A day of the Lord is coming, Jerusalem, when your possessions will be plundered and divided up within your very walls. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half of the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city.

How can this be? If God is all-loving and all-powerful, can’t he arrange it so his people don’t suffer? Doesn’t an all-loving father know his children’s agony? Can’t an all-powerful sovereign deal with injustice and prevent our pain?

Zechariah offers no solution for this conundrum. He never minimizes the horror of their suffering: city captured, houses ransacked, women raped. He declares that God is leading history anyway, even when it makes no sense to us.

We expect God to gather his scattered flock (1:19, 21; 2:6; 7:14; 10:8-10; 13:7). We don’t expect God to gather the nations against his people!

Zechariah embraces the incongruity, affirming God’s sovereignty. He’s been doing this all book long: it was God who struck the shepherd and scattered the sheep (13:7).

The problem is how God deals with the nations, the peoples in rebellion against his authority. They build kingdoms by making war (Genesis 10:8-12), trying to take God’s power (Genesis 11). That’s the reason God established a nation to represent his reign (Genesis 12). In typical Old Testament fashion, Zechariah addresses the incongruity of the rebellion against divine sovereignty by attributing inviolable authority to God. If the nations were gathering against Jerusalem, God must have gathered them to fight against his authority.

The puzzle of divine authority is that God does not eliminate his enemies. He confronts them to draw them under his authority. That’s how God explained his mighty acts to Pharaoh:
By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:15-16).

God saved his people from Pharaoh by splitting the sea, leading his people through (Exodus 14). Zechariah declares that God will provide the same mighty emancipation for the people of Jerusalem — splitting the land! It’s the same word (bā·qǎʿ) as splitting the sea in Exodus 14:16, 21.

That’s how the Warrior God (Exodus 15:3) fights those who oppose him. His goal is not to kill his enemies but open up a way to life under his kingship where the Lord reigns for ever and ever (Exodus 15:18).

The Rea Sea was an east-west crossing, with the waters raised up to the north and the south as God led his people through. Zechariah envisions the Warrior God providing that deliverance for the land-locked city of Jerusalem, leading his besieged people to safety:

Zechariah 14:3–5 (NIV)
Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will 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.

When God’s king finally did arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey to save his people, he did not expect his feet to literally split the Mount of Olives, as if he was called to reorder Jerusalem’s topography. That’s not how he understood the imagery of moving mountains (Matthew 21:21).

Jesus made so many allusions to Zechariah that we’ll need to cover that as a separate post. What’s crucial is that Jesus had Zechariah’s understanding of divine sovereignty in the face of suffering.

In the city surrounded by the nations for centuries, heaven’s anointed king (the Christ) came to take on the suffering of his people — the king of the Jews, rejected in refusal of divine sovereignty. He submitted to the divine decree, Strike the shepherd (Zechariah 13:7; Matthew 26:31). He drank the cup his Father gave him (Matthew 26:39, 42). He expected God to split the rocks and open the tomb for God’s holy people (Matthew 27:51). He expected God to open a way through the grave to life in God’s reign (Acts 1:3). This is how he ushered in the great and glorious day of the Lord, … for all whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:20-39).

If you’re feeling fatigued, struggling to keep a grip on life, focus your thoughts on the one who endured such hostility from the rebels. He established what we believe (God’s sovereignty over the earth), and he will bring it to completion (Hebrews 12:3).

The resurrected king is the embodiment of divine sovereignty in the face of suffering.

Open Zechariah 14:1-5.

Related posts

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s