William Kelly and the mount of Olives

October 9, 2011

William Kelly (1820-1906) was an early dispensationalist and a friend of John N. Darby. He published many books on prophecy promoting dispensationalism. He viewed the Israel of prophecy as meaning the Jews, rather than the Church. Jerusalem meant the earthly city. In centuries of scholarly investigation, no plausible figurative interpretation of the cleaving of the mount of Olives, and the displacement of the two halves of the mountain towards the north and towards the south, as described in Zechariah 14:4-5, had appeared. Perhaps Kelly was comforted by this. He assumed that surely, that prophecy must be a literal one, and could only refer to literal earth movements yet to occur, at Christ’s coming.

Zechariah 14:4-5
And his 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 half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.

Kelly could not imagine how the prophecy in Zechariah 14:4-5 could be understood except as a literal description of an earthquake with dramatic tectonic effects. Confident that he was right, he scoffed at the very possibility that some “spiritual” interpretation could ever be found for the prophecy. Kelly wrote: [1]

William Kelly

William Kelly

In chap. xiv. the nations re-appear once more, and the Lord goes forth at the head of His people and overthrows them. The nations may seem at first to succeed. They take Jerusalem, and half of the city goes into captivity; but, nevertheless, the nations are discomfited for ever immediately after. When has there been the very faintest appearance of the accomplishment of this prophecy? But there is more than this. It is said, “In that day the Lord shall come, and all His saints with Him.” Has this too been fulfilled? Still more, as if to confront the thoughts of man, as if to stamp the dreams of rationalism with evident folly, God will not leave the mount of Olives without an everlasting token that the Maker of heaven and earth is that glorious One, whose feet stand there in that day. Is Olivet cloven now? Clearly not. What can you make of it by the so-called spiritual interpretation? Absolutely nothing. No matter who or what you are, sure I am that mysticism fails, and here, if anywhere, it ought to confess its fault with shame. The undivided mountain rises up to condemn those false interpretations, and is a silent standing witness that the prophecy is not yet accomplished; before God and man the fact declares that the prophecy awaits its fulfilment. When the Lord does come to accomplish it, the mount will part asunder, and there shall be a very great valley between the northern and southern fragments. You who would unwittingly make this prophecy of private interpretation, weigh the fact now before us. Can you etherealize, so to speak, the mount of Olives? Can you turn it into a myth? Impossible! God condescends to map it out, so to speak, that there may be no mistake. He is pleased even to give the geographical position of it (v. 4), as if to expose and refute all such mysticism for ever.

Kelly believed that the events described by Zechariah had to do with the earthly Jerusalem. At Christ’s return, the mount of Olives would be cleaved in the midst, and part of it would remove to the north, and half to the south, forming a valley, through which the Jews in Jerusalem could escape from the Antichrist, who (Kelly believed) would be reigning there.

Other scholars, such as Jerome, Cyril, Marck, Vitringa, C. B. Michaelis, Dathe, and others, applied Zechariah’s prophecies to the church. E. W. Hengstenberg, professor of theology at Berlin, applied portions of the final three chapters of Zechariah to the church. Hengstenberg said that the prophecy about a valley being formed through the mount of Olives was “obviously figurative,” but he did not provide an interpretation. He wrote in part: [2]

—Now, whilst the wish for flight is thus excited in the minds of the believers, the Lord opens a way for it by means of the same earthquake, which brings destruction to the foe. In a case like this, where there was real danger in delay, to any one desirous of escaping from Jerusalem by means of a rapid flight, the Mount of Olives, which terminated the valley of Jehoshaphat, and which David, when he fled, was obliged to climb (2 Sam. xv. 30), presented an obstacle of no little importance. But this was removed, when the Lord divided the mountain. The flying multitude of believers poured through the extended valley of Jehoshaphat, and as soon as they were beyond the range of the divine judgments, the latter poured down with violence and without cessation upon the enemies of God, as they had formerly done upon Sodom, when Lot reached Zoar. It is very obvious that the whole account is figurative, and that the fundamental idea, the rescue of believers and the destruction of their enemies, is clothed in drapery borrowed from the local circumstances of Jerusalem.—

In the New Testament, the mount of Olives is symbolic. It represents the new covenant. Jesus stood upon the mount of Olives during his ministry; he taught his disciples there, and it was where he gave the Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. He was crucified on the mount of Olives. The Centurion who was standing nearby when Jesus died saw the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom, which would be possible only from a place that was near the summit of the mount of Olives, and overlooked the temple. Most likely, Jesus was buried on the mount of Olives, and so that is also where he rose from the grave. He ascended to heaven from the mount of Olives. Obviously the mount of Olives was prominent in his ministry, and it is associated with the new covenant that Jesus established with his disciples. This is the covenant referred to in Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks, which Christ confirms with many during the 70th week.

The 70th week spans all the time from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the end of the age. I suggest that Zechariah’s prophecy about the mount of Olives being cleaved in the midst, and two halves of the mountain being displaced towards the north and towards the south represents the two popular interpretations of the covenant that Jesus confirms in the 70th week, and the Olivet Discourse. Preterism interprets the 70th week as seven literal years, that were fulfilled completely in the first century A.D., and dispensationalism says the 70th week is yet future, and that the covenant is not confirmed by Jesus, but is between Antichrist and the Jews. William Kelly was responsible for the development and promotion of the latter doctrine, and for helping to figuratively displace half the mount of Olives to the south, while preterism figuratively displaces the other half towards the north. Those flawed interpretations fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy.

Zechariah said, “And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains…” The valley formed when the two halves of the mountain are displaced in opposite directions is figurative, and it represents taking hold of the promises available under the new covenant. This includes discovering the truth about prophecy, which provides light in the darkness. Christians fleeing to this valley are brought together, whereas preterism and dispensationalism tend to separate. Prophecies such as the Olivet Discourse apply to the entire age of the church, not just to the first century, or to a future seven year tribulation.

Below are comments by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 -1892), the famous Baptist pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, on works by William Kelly. [3]

Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew by William Kelly. 1868
C. H. Spurgeon: “We cannot accept the forced and fanciful interpretations here given.

Lectures Introductory to the Study of Paul’s Epistles by William Kelly. 1869
C. H. Spurgeon: “Of the same character as Mr. Kelly’s other works.”

Philippians and Colossians by William Kelly. 1869
C. H. Spurgeon: “Much that is excellent placed in ‘darkness visible.'”

Lectures Introductory to the Study of the Acts, Catholic Epistles, and Revelation by William Kelly. 1870
C. H. Spurgeon: “By a man ‘who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind’ by Darbyism.”

Notes by William Kelly. 1870
C. H. Spurgeon: “It needs minds of a peculiar organization to enjoy Plymouth writings. They abound in peculiar phraseology, which only the initiated can understand. We are sorry to see such a mind as Mr. Kelly’s so narrowed to party bounds.”

Lectures by William Kelly. 1871
C. H. Spurgeon: “Mr. Kelly finds in the Minor Prophets a great many things which we cannot see a trace: of—for instance, he here discovers that we shall lose India. It is a pity that a man of such excellence should allow a very superior mind to be so warped.

Lectures on Isaiah by William Kelly. 1871
C. H. Spurgeon: “This eminent divine of the Brethren school sometimes expounds ably, but with a twist towards the peculiar dogmas of his party.”

Notes by William Kelly. 1873
C. H. Spurgeon: “Many of the remarks are admirable, but the theories supported are untenable.”

Lectures on Galatians by William Kelly
C. H. Spurgeon: “Mr. Kelly’s authoritative style has no weight with us. We do not call these lectures expounding, but confounding.”

Introductory Lectures by William Kelly
C. H. Spurgeon: “By a leading writer of the exclusive Plymouth school. Not to our mind.”


1. William Kelly. Lectures on the second coming and kingdom of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. W.H. Broom, 1865. p. 123.

2. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Christology of the Old Testament, and a commentary on the Messianic predictions
, Volume 4
. T. & T. Clark, 1858. p. 125.

3. Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Commenting & Commentaries.

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