When one begins to study about the two witnesses, one is inevitably drawn to Revelation 11. This passage, however, only encapsulates the ministry of these two prophets. Their work is revealed throughout the Bible, from some of the earliest events in its record.
As we read the account in Revelation, we quickly come upon an obvious reference to one such Old Testament prophecy. John records, "And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth" (Rev. 11:3-4).
It is no mystery that the Lord is here referring to the vision of Zechariah 4. "And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep, And said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof: And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof. So I answered and spake to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord? Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord. ... Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof? And I answered again, and said unto him, What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves? And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord. Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth" (Zech. 4:1-14)
Apparently little has changed over the centuries. Even as believers in our day, Zechariah wanted to know the identity and work of the two trees. He asked, "What are these, my lord?" And this vision of Zechariah, and the interpretation as given by the angel, gives us more clues - and, yes, more references to other Scriptures.
In this short passage, the two witnesses are called different names: specifically two olive trees, two olive branches, and two anointed ones.
When the angel says, "These are the two anointed ones," it is not difficult to see a reference to the word of the Lord in Ezekiel 28:14. He says to the king of Tyre, "Thou are the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God." When Moses made the tabernacle and all the furniture and vessels for it, He was strictly commanded of the Lord, "And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount" (Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5).
In the Church in the Wilderness, as it is called by Stephen, it is revealed that there is not one overshadowing cherub, but two. "And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel" (Ex. 25:17-22).
These two anointed cherubims were set on the Ark of the Testimony, in the Tabernacle of Witness, and, standing by the Lord of the whole earth, covered the dwelling place of Jehovah, "the Lord God of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims" (1 Sam. 4:4).
Let us look again at this statement, "These are the two anointed ones." The Hebrew word for anointed is xyvm (mashiyach), from whence we derive the word Messiah. But "anointed ones" in Zechariah 4 is taken from rhuyh-ynb (beni hayitshar), which is literally translated "sons of oil."
That interpretation leads us to another Old Testament prophecy of the two witnesses in 2 Kings 4:1-7. "Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the LORD: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen. And Elisha said unto her, What shall I do for thee? tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thine handmaid hath not any thing in the house, save a pot of oil. Then he said, Go, borrow thee vessels abroad of all thy neighbours, even empty vessels; borrow not a few. And when thou art come in, thou shalt shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and shalt pour out into all those vessels, and thou shalt set aside that which is full. So she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons, who brought the vessels to her; and she poured out. And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed. Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest."
In this passage, the Lord reveals the work of the two witnesses as the "two sons of oil." They gather much oil, as instructed by the prophet Elisha, for the purpose of selling it. They were to gather enough vessels so that the oil provided by the Lord, when sold, would accomplish to pay the debt and provide them enough to live on besides.
Zechariah says that these two olive trees (or two olive branches) empty oil out of themselves through two golden pipes, and, because of the context, it seems clear that this oil is to be used to light the candlestick which is located between them. So this oil is for light. That is exactly the purpose of the oil described in Matthew 25. When the ten virgins, representing the kingdom of heaven, went out to meet the bridegroom, five foolishly took no oil for their lamps, while five wisely did. The bridegroom did not come immediately, so they all grew droopy and fell asleep. But at midnight, a cry was made, "Behold the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." It being dark, they all trimmed their lamps. "And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut." It seems that they were able to purchase the oil, but it was too late. When they returned, the door was shut and they could not enter in to the marriage.
This describes a time during the ministry of the two witnesses, when they have oil to sell. This oil is not, as some have supposed, a representation of the Holy Ghost, since He cannot be bought or sold. This oil is the truth, wisdom, instruction and understanding, which the Lord instructs us to buy in Proverbs 23:23. (This would explain the refusal of the wise virgins to share their own with the foolish. They are as the student who tells his teacher he knows the answer, but does not understand it well enough to explain it.)
Of course, the truth which they offer is not purchased with actual money, but there is a price. "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people" (Isa. 55:1-4).
So the work of these two prophets is two-fold: they are to gather oil to sell, and they are to witness (as we will understand more clearly as we continue this study).
In our next installment, we will explore what exactly the two witnesses witness.
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