The Two Olive Trees: Zechariah, Haggai, and John
The Two Olive Trees
Zechariah, Haggai, and John
“These Witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands that stand before the Lord of the earth…”
In our earlier interpretation of the Two Witnesses we purposely neglected to comment on one very crucial passage from the Old Testament. As John views the Two Witnesses they slowly change before his eyes, being envisioned first as Two Olive Trees, and then as Two Lamp-stands, or more likely, as a combination of the two. Remember, this is a vision, and all of the imagery is dreamlike and symbolic, and John does not always make the exact visual mode clear. Then the angel speaks again, and offers us a symbolic clue to the identity of the Two Witnesses. At the same time, he offers a bold and independent interpretation of a vision seen long ago by the Prophet Zechariah.
‘Then the angel who spoke with me returned and awakened me, like a man awakened from his sleep. ‘What do you see?’ he asked me. ‘I see a lamp-stand all of gold, with a bowl at the top,’ I replied; On it are seven lamps with their tubes, and beside it are two olive trees, one on the right and the other on the left.’ I then asked him, ‘What are these two olive trees at each side of the lampstand?’ “Do you not know what these are?’ he said to me. ‘No, my Lord,’ I answered him. He said ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’” Zechariah 4:1-14. The New American Bible
A few of the commentators have incorrectly interpreted the Lamp-stands, confusing them with those seen previously by John. Most of them, however, recognize the essential Jewishness of the passage, and its special link to the passage from Zechariah.
The symbolism is clear and unobtruse. The Two Lamp-stands and the Two Olive Trees are two men. This has been the interpretation of the Jews since at least the time of Zechariah, and by the Christians since the time of John. Augustine gives all the nuances of the interpretation in a single sentence.
“All men are lamps, since they can both be lighted and extinguished. More over, when the lamps are wise, they shine and glow with the Spirit.”
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit saith the Lord of Hosts.” Zechariah 4:6
This then, is the essence of the symbolism of the lampstand and the olive trees.
During the time of Zechariah two men arose who were “stirred up by the Spirit of the Lord.” Zerubbabel, the son of the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the son of the High Priest of Israel. Together, followed by an inspired “remnant”, they rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. If the parallel between the two visions holds true, and we have no reason to doubt this given the amazing correspondence found so far, the Two Witnesses will be two Jews, one from the political class and one from the priestly class. They will play a key part in both the building the Temple of John’s vision, and in the events of the final 1,260 days. This idea seems to be confirmed by a prophecy from Haggai. After an exhortation to Zerubbabel and Joshua, Haggai predicts the building of the Temple amidst the great cataclysmic Judgments of the last times.
A few years ago, such an interpretation would have seemed impossible, if not incredible. It has none of the supernatural implications of the older traditions, and the political scenario seemed to preclude any literal interpretation of these visions. This is no longer true. Israel’s present existence as a Nation, something only a few of the contemporary expositors once believed possible, is now being threatened by Islamic Fundamentalism. It has spread from Iran, to Lebanon, to the West Bank. The cry of these people is Jihad, or Holy War, and their primary intention is the destruction of Israel as a nation. As I write these words America has been struck by terrorists in a most deceitful and cowardly manner. The cry now heard all over the Muslim world is death to America! Death to Israel!
The Jews, although strong militarily, have no such fiery, driving, religious enthusiasm. The political leaders, the military leaders, and the religious leaders, having no comparable ideology to offer their people, are discouraged. I maintain that the only thing capable of binding the nation together is the building of the Temple. This will be accomplished through the ministry of the Two Witnesses, who are no doubt alive and being prepared at this very moment.
As we have seen so often in our commentary, the commentators fall into two camps – those who interpret the visions literally and those who interpret them allegorically. The division between these groups grows wider the further we go in the Apocalypse, but it is never sharper than in the vision of the Two Witnesses. Before exploring these differences, we should mention the one aspect of the vision that is beyond dispute.
The period of the 1,260 days is depicted as a time of intense super-naturalism and miracles. John envisions it as the final battle between the divinely empowered Witnesses and the Antichrist, an evil being from the Abyss with supernatural powers. J.A. Seiss describes the period graphically.
“The world is so full of malignant evil, that they cannot maintain a being in it without the power of miracle. Hell has incarnated itself upon earth…. Saints from Heaven and potencies from Hell are upon the scene, as never was the case to the same extent or in the same manner before.”
This salient fact does not change regardless of how the miraculous elements of the vision are interpreted. To deny it is to deny the validity of the vision itself, an act that renders any commentary superfluous.
Fire as a symbol can be either good or bad. It embraces both vital heat and destructive conflagration. It is the context, therefore, that determines the nature and meaning of the symbol. Given this fact, the use of fire described in our text can only mean one thing – Divine Judgment has arrived at last, and the long-promised “firing of the earth” has begun. All of the commentators are in harmony on this point. The central disagreement among the modern commentators centers around the nature of the fire. Is it literal, something we can see and feel, or is it spiritual, a mental or moral force?
The supernatural actions that lift the Two Witnesses to the peak of their power are derived from the four earthly elements – fire, air, water and earth. Although the symbolism can be either good or bad, the symbols as they are used here are almost entirely negative. Since the commentators are divided over much of the text we are going to follow this blog with several others to present the reader with a fuller portrait of these amazing characters.