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Zechariah 14:12 Their Flesh Shall Consume Away

Is Zechariah 14:12 to be Understood Literally?

The Bible describes many terrible events that will occur during the final days of this world’s history. One verse, Zechariah 14:12, presents a particularly fearful-sounding representation of the final fate of the lost:

“And this shall be the plague wherewith the LORD will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.” (Zech 14:12)

The question is this: is that verse speaking of physical consumption? Is it to be taken literally? Some have seen it as people being exposed to the explosion of a neutron bomb as in this description:

“When this bomb blows the release of the neutrons are lethal to humans and any other animal life around it. … If you are within the blast radius what will happen to you is eerily similar to what Zechariah describes in chapter 14 of his prophecy. Any kind of flesh is destroyed by a kind of melting process as all the atoms are destroyed within it. Thus Zechariah’s description of something that rots flesh, eyes, and the tongue are often compared to what happens at the detonation of a neutron bomb.” (www.calvarychapeljonesboro.org/prophecynews/zechariah-14-neutron-bombs-and-gods-ultimate-purpose-for-israel; accessed on 170123)

Many people will simply say “the Bible says it, so I believe it.” However, we need to go further than that and ask not only “what does the Bible say?” but “what does it mean?” The deeper meaning is often hidden below the surface. And so we will take a closer look.

A Little Background

First, we’ll briefly address the issue of the setting, the background to this verse. The prophecy of Zechariah 14 is similar to that of Matthew 24 in a way. In that chapter, the disciples asked Jesus:
“… Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matt 24:3)

They could only conceive that a disaster on the scale of the destruction of the temple would be associated with the end of the world. Jesus, in His answer, combined the two events:

· The destruction of the temple in 70 AD

· The end of the world yet future from now

Similarly, in regard to the prophecy of Zechariah 14, there were two possible fulfillments:

· Had the Jews accepted the Messiah

· Rejection and another 2,000 years of history

The fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy was conditional upon their choice and the choice they made was shown by such statements as:

“… We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)

There are certain elements in Zechariah’s prophecy that point to a judgment scene future from now:

“And his (the Lord’s) 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 the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.” (Zech 14:4-5)

These line up with events described in Revelation 20-21 at the end of the millennium when the holy city will descend (Rev 21:2) and be surrounded for the final battle (Rev 20:9).

Also, there are certain elements in Zechariah’s prophecy that would have been fulfilled in later events had Israel accepted the Messiah that may yet be fulfilled in principle, if not in detail, at the end of Earth’s history.

The purpose of this study is not to completely sort out the possible options as to the time of fulfillment or to fit it into a specific end-time scenario as it is to analyze whether it is literal or figurative. At least we can know that it is future from now.

The Bible Defines its Own Terms

As always, we need to consider whether the Bible has its own definitions and whether those are different from the common understanding.

To “consume away” is from the Hebrew word “maqaq” (Strong’s #4743) which means “to pine away.” The website www.dictionary.com gives these meanings for pine:

· to yearn deeply; suffer with longing; long painfully

· to fail gradually in health or vitality from grief, regret, or longing

Here are Bible verses that use the original Hebrew word “maqaq”:

“And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; and also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them.” (Lev 26:39)

“That they may want bread and water, and be astonied one with another, and consume away for their iniquity.” (Eze 4:17)

“And your tires shall be upon your heads, and your shoes upon your feet: ye shall not mourn nor weep; but ye shall pine away for your iniquities, and mourn one toward another.” (Eze 24:23)

Notice, in the verse above, people are described as both pining away and mourning suggesting a close equivalence of those two emotions. The verse below suggests that a person could not even live with themselves in light of what they are feeling about their transgressions and sins:

“Therefore, O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” (Eze 33:10)

This verse, with its use of terms similar to Zechariah 14:12, seems to relate:

“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” (1 John 2:16)

Note that “pride of life” is mainly expressed via the tongue as in bragging:

“The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things:” (Psa 12:3)

It is interesting that John mentions three categories of sins that also seem to line up with what is described as being consumed in Zechariah 14:12. Here is that verse again using the same color coding:

“And this shall be the plague wherewith the LORD will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.” (Zech 14:12)

Jesus’ Temptations

Now, notice the account of Satan’s three-fold temptation of Jesus:

“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread [the lust of the flesh; sensualism].” (Matt 4:3)

Of course, Jesus had just been through a forty-day fast and would have been hungry as verse 2 says: “he was afterward an hungred.” Here was an opportunity for instant gratification of a legitimate physical need.

“Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone [the pride of life; humanism].” (Matt 4:5-6)

If He had cast Himself down (from probably the most visible place in all of Jerusalem where the action would have been seen by the most people) He could perhaps have had a significant head start on the work of proving Himself to be the expected Messiah.

“Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them [the lust of the eyes; materialism]; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (Matt 4:8-9)

Jesus’ work was to win this world back from Satan and to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. Here was a temptation to use what was presented as a shortcut to that goal; to the work He was just about to embark upon for the next three and a half years.

These temptations were all real and were presented in a way that seemed to satisfy what would have been Jesus’ greatest desires at that time. However, Jesus knew of God’s plan for His life and of God’s word and He also knew that God had provided a way of escape from every temptation:

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13)

Jesus used the Word of God to overcome each time Satan presented another temptation. In each case, He replied with “it is written” (Matt 4:4,6,10) and an appropriate scripture.

Other Parallels

Notice that Eve experienced these same three categories of temptation:

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh], and that it was pleasant to the eyes [the lust of the eyes], and a tree to be desired to make one wise [the pride of life], she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen 3:6)

These were also the three areas in which the people of Sodom fell:

“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride [the pride of life], fulness of bread [the lust of the flesh], and abundance of idleness [the lust of the eyes, materialism] was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Eze 16:49)

It seems there are three major categories of sin that can be summarized as follows:

3 lusts

This makes sense in light of this verse:

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15)

How could Jesus have been tempted in every way we have been tempted – Jesus was never tempted, for instance, to drive over the speed limit? “All points” is a reference to these broad categories not to every little variation of temptation that might come our way. Thankfully, we do have an high priest who was also tempted in each of these categories of sin – and overcame.

Zechariah 14:12 Has a Spiritual Meaning

And so, the flesh, eyes and tongue being consumed is not literal, physical consumption. Rather, what is described is people pining away, being mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by all the sins (in three main categories) that they have committed during their lifetime and did not turn from or repent of. The consumption is in more of a moral than a physical sense.

In the literal understanding, such as the neutron-bomb scenario mentioned earlier, people would not be in deep remorse over their lives and lack of repentance so much as they would be in terrible pain and abject terror of what would be happening to them in a very brief period of time. That is not the sort of response described by terms like to “pine away.” Extreme pain does not lend itself to much contemplation of self or the larger situation.

God’s goal, for the future, eternal security of the universe, includes mental assent (of everyone involved) to His righteousness:

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:9-10)

This to insure against rebellion arising again in the future:

“What do ye imagine against the LORD? he will make an utter end (of questions about His character and rule): affliction shall not rise up the second time.” (Nahum 1:9)

It is now that we each need to examine ourselves in these three areas – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life to see how well we are resisting temptations in those areas. And then we need to avail ourselves of the promises in scripture such as this one:

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13)

The way of escape – the one that Jesus used – was to claim scripture promises to combat each temptation. And there are many that can be used in various situations to counteract specific temptations. Learn them, claim them and have faith in God to keep His promises.

Since the Bible often has multiple layers of meaning, this study does not rule out the possibility of another application, more on a physical level, to Zechariah 14:12. It has shown however that, as is so often the case, allowing the Bible to interpret its own terms, to function as its own dictionary leads to a significant spiritual understanding.

Zechariah 14:12 Really is Literal?

We might say that this is the figurative rather than the literal way of understanding Zechariah 14:12. However, when the Bible is allowed to define its own terms and “consume away” is rightly understood as something more like mental anguish and extreme remorse then, yes, we can take it literally. Here is an attempt at a more accurate rendering taking into account the Biblical meaning of words involved and the parallels with other scripture:

“And this shall be the situation that the LORD will bring all of the lost to as they assemble around the New Jerusalem; They will be overwhelmed with mental anguish and extreme remorse as they see how the things they cherished in life – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life have shut them out from the New Jerusalem. They will suffer extreme regret for their choices and will yearn deeply for their loss of eternal life.” (Zech 14:12, paraphrased and expanded with original meanings)

This is expressed in literal language by using more accurate renderings of the real meaning of the original words. It more accurately describes God’s role in the final destruction of the lost. God has been accused, greatly mistrusted and, in a sense, put on trial (Rom 3:4). He has been blamed by many people for much of the suffering going on the world today. Have you ever heard of “acts of God” in reference to natural disasters?

Think of the common understanding of Zechariah 14:12. Is that any way for a God of justice to finally solve the controversy and ensure eternal peace and trust in the universe – to exterminate all who oppose Him with something like a neutron-bomb blast? What would that do for ensuring continued trust among those in His kingdom and that sin would not rise up the second time.

Or is it more like God to lay all the evidence on the table to show, in an indisputable way, how wrongly He has been judged, to allow people to have their choice?

This study has larger implications in regard to the character of God (www.characterofgod.org) and of how He treats His enemies at the Second Death (www.jesus-resurrection.info/fire-and-brimstone.html).

A video version of this page is available here (16 min):

Also, see it as part of a larger study on the Second Death in the Free E-book The Truth About the Second Death: A Scriptural Study available here.