Interpretation of future events, as outlined by the prophecies of the Scriptures, is a challenging task. Yet it is a task that entails a great deal of responsibility for those who undertake it, for a misrepresentation of future expectations can have grave consequences. Accordingly, there is an interpretation of a single verse, frequently presented from Bible teachers, that in my opinion has seriously distorted the understanding of the future of the Jewish people.
This teaching can be summarized as follows: there is yet a future holocaust for the Jewish people, worse than the Nazi holocaust, during which two-thirds of the world's Jewish population will perish. This is based on a single verse in the Bible, Zechariah 13:8, and unfortunately is a very popular teaching among Evangelical Christians. Yet it is an interpretation that is entirely without credible basis or merit.
One of the most important principles of Biblical interpretation is to examine the context of a verse. On occasion, with prophetic passages, there is little context that will assist us in understanding a verse, but fortunately, this passage in Zechariah is not one of those occasions. Let's look at the entire passage first, from a few different translations:
Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, against the Man who is My Companion," says the Lord of hosts. "Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; then I will turn My hand against the little ones. And it shall come to pass in all the land," says the Lord, "that two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, but one-third shall be left in it: I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'This is My people'; and each one will say, 'The Lord is my God.' (Zech 13:7-9 NKJV)
"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man who is my associate!" says the LORD of Hosts. "Smite the shepherd, and the sheep [of the flock] will be scattered, and I will turn back my hand and stretch it out again upon the little ones [of the flock]. "And in all the land," declares the LORD, "two-thirds will be cut off and perish; yet one-third will be left alive. And I will bring the third part through the fire; and will refine them as silver is refined and will test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name and I will hear and answer them; I will say, 'It is my people,' and they will say, 'the LORD is my God.'" (Zech 13:7-9 Amplified)
"Sword, hit the shepherd. Attack the man who is my friend," says the Lord All-Powerful. "Kill the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter, and I will punish the little ones." The Lord says, "Two-thirds of the people through all the land will die. They will be gone, and one-third will be left. The third that is left I will test with fire, purifying them like silver, testing them like gold. Then they will call on me, and I will answer them. I will say, 'You are my people,' and they will say, 'The Lord is our God.'" (NCV)
Jesus Himself provides us with some information about this prophecy. Just before His arrest, He quoted a portion of it, "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" to announce to his disciples the dire news that every one of them would temporarily desert Him. Thus, we know that this act of violence that will "awaken" against the "shepherd" is referring to His arrest and execution. Jesus is the man who is the "associate" of the Lord God, translated by other versions as "my companion," "my partner," "my fellow," "my friend"" and "the man who is close to me." The Messiah, the only man who on his own merit could be God's close companion and associate, would be struck down. The next verses describe the immediate results of that.
Though Jesus applied the phrase "the sheep will be scattered" to his small brand of His disciples, it is evident from the context that "the sheep, the little ones" also has a broader meaning. In the next phrase, which Jesus pointedly did not quote in reference to his disciples, it says "I will turn my hand against the little ones." This is God speaking, and clearly He is not speaking about the disciples here, whom God did not turn against. Of whom is He speaking?
Sadly, Jesus had prophesied about the people against whom God would turn His hand because of their rejection of the Messiah. As Jesus approached Jerusalem for the last time, and 'saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you."' (Luke 19:41-44 NIV)
Jesus cried openly because He foresaw what would happen in Israel in the near future. God would strike the sheep, because of what had happened to the shepherd. The metaphor of Israel as the sheep rejecting the shepherd was a continuation of the prophetic concept of Zechariah 11:4-14. In that prophecy, the Lord had informed them "I will not be your shepherd" any longer, because of their rejection of Him. (See The Flock Doomed To Slaughter).
Therefore, when the Lord said, "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones," He was speaking of the incredibly horrible devastation and destruction that would befall Jerusalem and Israel a few short decades later. In the next breath, Zechariah gives accurate details about the extent of the sentence that had been handed down by the Lord, details that have been historically verified. "In the whole land," declares the LORD, "two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left."
As a result of the Lord turning His hand against His own sheep of Israel, in the tragic massacres at the hands of the Romans in AD 70 and 132, the total population of Jews declined from 4.5 million to 1.5 million. Indeed, this prophecy was fulfilled exactly as Zechariah had foretold. Two-thirds of the Jewish people died in this ghastly purge, and one-third was left alive, to be scattered among the nations.
Other Bible commentators agree that that two-thirds prophecy was fulfilled in 70 through 132 AD. Matthew Henry's commentary on Zechariah 13:8 states, "The Roman army laid the country waste, and slew at least two-thirds of the Jews." Keil and Delitzsch concur: "cutting off of the two-thirds of Israel commenced in the Jewish war under Vespasian and Titus, and in the war for the suppression of the rebellion led by the pseudo-Messiah Bar Cochba." John Walvoord writes: "The scattering of the sheep also seems to refer to the scattering of the Jewish nation when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70." John Wesley says of this verse, "the greater part shall die a temporal death, by the sword of Titus."
Josephus, the Jewish historian who was present at the scene, graphically described the horrors of those days. The Jewish people suffered terribly when God "turned His hand" against them at that time. Yet God, in His great compassion, provided a word of hope to Israel in the next verse. Even though the Lord had declared "I will not be your shepherd" to Israel, this decision was temporary, not permanent. Even in judgment, God remembered mercy. The one-third that remained after the judgments would not be entirely rejected, but would be refined, and ultimately, restored. "This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, 'They are my people,' and they will say, 'The LORD is our God.'" (Zec 13:9 NIV)
This verse takes a very long view of the history of the Jewish people between 132 AD, when Rome completed its devastation of Israel, and the day when Israel will once again call upon the name of the Lord. The interim centuries have been a story of refining for the Jewish people, a long process of being put "in the fire," to bring them to the place where they will be prepared for their final restoration and revival. Though He "turned His hand" against them for a short period, He will once again say of them, "They are my people." Isaiah confirms this: "I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City." (Isa 1:25-26 NIV)
Thus, we can see that these verses have been precisely fulfilled, except for the last portion, which is in the process of being fulfilled. Therefore, it is irresponsible and presumptuous for so many Bible teachers to flippantly parrot the assertion that Israel faces a future holocaust worse than the Nazi holocaust, during in which two-thirds of the Jews will be slaughtered. There is no other Biblical evidence for this claim, and basing it on one verse which has a historically verifiable past fulfillment is doing a great disservice to the recipients of the message, not to mention the Jewish people themselves.
I'm not sure who was the originator of this pernicious teaching, but it is uncritically repeated by nearly all Bible prophecy "experts." Whether or not one agrees with my understanding of these verses, certainly there is enough reasonable doubt about the concept of a future purge of two-thirds of world Jewry as to lead responsible teachers to a more circumspect approach.
The incorrect teaching also contradicts one of the major, vital works that God is doing in these last days: the spiritual restoration of Israel. As we know from numerous other prophetic Scriptures, God is renewing His care for Israel. They have been returned to the land in fulfillment of the first phase of end-time prophecy, and now we are seeing the beginning of the fulfillment of the second phase. "For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, 'I belong to the LORD'; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, 'The Lord's,' and will take the name Israel." (Isa 44:3-5 NIV)
The concept that Jews will undergo another holocaust after Christians are raptured away is not correct. On the contrary, according to Revelation 12, it will be the Jewish people who will be supernaturally protected during that time, while the Christians will be facing mass persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the antichrist. This will be addressed further in a future article.
The important point to consider is this: do not uncritically accept the teachings of the popular Bible prophecy "experts" - there is really no such thing as an expert on this subject. We are all just trying to piece it together with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but our understanding is far from complete. However, teaching about these topics is a very grave responsibility, and to easily toss out statements such as "two-thirds of the Jews will be slaughtered in a future holocaust," without a solid Scriptural basis, is cause for censure.