ZECHARIAH-SERIES NR 11
Theme: True worship
The 8 visions that the Lord gave Zechariah, are completed and the time period now jumps (in chapter 7) to December 518 BC – that is approximately 2 years after he had received the visions and 2 years before the restoration of the temple would be completed in 516BC. Now a completely different subject is addressed.
We first give a complete overview of the chapter, and then return to the central message that the Spirit of God is addressing to us today.
Many decades before, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. At the time, the Babylonians appointed a man with the name of Gedaliah as governor over Judah. Gedaliah was later assassinated.
Since that time the Jews instituted a regular twice per year fasting to lament and bemoan the fall of Jerusalem and also the death of Gedaliah. There were more fasts, but these two were the most important. The fall of Jerusalem was remembered with 4 fasts, in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the Jewish calendar. But because the temple was destroyed in the fifth month (July/August), the fast in the 5th month was the most important for the Jews. It is however clear that, as time went on, the more it became a wearisome, lifeless, exhausting ritual.
It was in any case not something that the Lord had instructed. It was conjured up by men. The only annual fast that the Lord ordered, was the fast during the Great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Lev 23:27). For many decades the covenant people held man-made fasts that did not originate in the heart of God, was not ordered by Him, and that degenerated into spiritually dead religious rituals.
The year is now 518 BC and the restoration work is in full swing. A question arises in the Jewish community whether or not it is still feasable to continue with the above mentioned two fasts.
A delegation from Bethel – a town approximately 20km north of Jerusalem – arrives in Jerusalem to enquire of the priests and the prophets Zechariah and Haggai: “Now that the temple is being restored and the exile is over, should we continue to mourn and fast in the fifth month, as we have been doing for so many years?”
This is important, because this indicates at what level worship was regarded by the covenant people – those who returned from exile – at that stage. They were back in their own country, returned from exile, but their conception of what true faith is, was very shallow. They were outwardly religious, yes, but utterly missed out on the fruit of true faith-trust that is rivited upon God’s promises. It was merely an outward ceremony, without the warmth of a living walk with God – resulting in obedience to God. Exactly the way it had been with their forefathers in the years before the horrors of the Exile took place.
Zechariah concurs perfectly with the previous prophets showing how the people of his time are repeating the same sins of their forefathers. The main reason why God’s holy people were sent into exile was as a result of their dead ritualistic religiosity – without a living relationship with God and practical obedience – which led to compromise with idols. The forefathers made their hearts as hard as flint – hardened AGAINST the Word of the Lord. And now here are the Jews who have returned from exile and committing the same sins all over again. It must not. It can not.
There was much more of self-interest in their religion rather than a love that would place God at the centre of their worship. THAT was the actual reason why the Lord had arranged the Exile as a disciplinary measure and punishment decades previously – and it was still present. It was as if they have not learned anything. They thought that as long as they upheld the fasts, everything was in order. In the meantime they were living a compromised life in sin and allowed injustice to thrive.
To put it briefly: “Surely our disobedience will be cancelled out by our serious efforts at fasting?” That is how they argued.
The Lord then gives the deputation from Bethel a clear answer – through the mouth of Zechariah. The answer consists of FOUR messages – of which two are recorded in chapter 7 and two in chapter 8. An important message from the Holy Spirit, consisting of four parts – of which we must take careful note.
Let us now look in more detail at the Lord’s answer to the delegation from Bethel and hear what the message from this is for us today.
THE FIRST TWO ANSWERS FROM GOD FOR THE DELEGATION FROM BETHEL:
1 VERSES 4-7 > YOUR MOTIVES ARE WRONG
The Lord God knows our motives and reasoning, and by nature this is not something that we want to hear or believe, but His judgment cuts deep into mind and heart. Psalm 7:10 and Rev 2:23.
The first part of the Lord’s answer is therefore a rebuke. Yes, you do fast, but you do it with the wrong motives.
It is nothing new or strange. The Holy Spirit said the same thing 300 years previously in Isaiah 58:3-9 where the PRE-exile people of God also asked: “Why have we fasted, but the Lord does not take notice?” In other words: “We pray and pray, but heaven is as if made of brass”.
And then the Lord answered them saying: “This is the reason: You fast and pray, yes, but at the same time you are living with sin. Your disparity with God is apparent in how you behave towards your fellow man. You exploit your labourers. You argue and quarrel. It does not help that you ceremoniously bow your heads in prayer, but you do not let go the bonds of wickedness! You pray, but you oppress other people. Come, let me tell you what kind of fast I require. Break the bonds of wickedness and give bread to the hungry and clothes to the naked. And stop with malicious talk. THEN your light will break through like the dawn and you will be healed and the Lord’s glory will be your rear-guard and you will pray and I shall answer”.
What Isaiah 58 is saying, we find again here in verses 5-6 of Zechariah 7. The Lord God is asking the delegates from Bethel a piercing question: FOR WHOM are you fasting? Is it really for ME? Are you seeking to glorify ME with it? Are you honouring MY Name through it? Do you seek MY will by it? Are you doing it out of a true repentance and for self-examination, or are you doing it because of self-pity?
Back in Isaiah we see the same rebuke from the Lord’s mouth in Isaiah 1:10-15. “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. I will not listen. Stop bringing meaningless and detestable offerings. I am weary of your sacrifices. I have no pleasure in the blood of your sacrifices. I cannot bear your evil assemblies. It has become a burden to me. Do you know why? Because you mingle it with unrighteousness. You want to serve me, but you want to continue to live with sin. “
Back to Zechariah 7. Verse 7 makes clear what counts in heaven. What is it that is important in God’s heart? Religious rituals? No. Obedience is what is important. There definitely do not need to be set fasting times, but if there is a willingness in the heart to be obedient, it counts a million times more with God than any fast.
In the history of God’s Old Testament covenant people of Israel, obedience brought great joy and peace and prosperity. Think about the time of David and even Solomon.
But when God’s people forsake obedience and put rituals in place of it, they would loose their joy and peace, and even their prosperity.
But here is a question: WHEN AND WHY does a believer or a congregation or church set religious rituals in place of obedience? It is when the inner motive of the heart is corrupt. When the Lord himself is not the longing and thirst or passion of the heart, but SELF has become the passion and the focus of the heart.
2 VERSES 8-14 > YOU NEED REPENTANCE
In these verses Zechariah agrees absolutely 100% with the warnings of the earlier prophets – for example Isaiah 1:11-17 and 58:1-7 and Amos 5. What the PRE-exile nation did not realise, was that it truly was the HOLY SPIRIT who spoke through those prophets (verse 12). It truly was the Word of God. But they hardened their hearts. And because of that the Lord kept himself deaf to their prayers (verse 13). The end result was the Babilonian exile. A beautiful country became a desolate world (verse 14).
That was true of the PRE-exile people of God. Sin destroyed them and their country – because that is what sin does: it destroys. And now the POST-exile people of God want to follow the same route? That is what the Lord is asking by way of Zechariah. Do you REALLY want to follow the same route? Really? Well, come to your senses. Repent, and wholeheartedly TURN back to the Lord. And subject yourselves to the authority of His Word. Put obedience to Him in place of obedience to self.
There must be practical visible fruit of righteousness that accompanies obedience to God’s Word. In New Testament language we could say: there SHALL be visible fruit of righteousness, because it is the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in and through the life of the person who is reborn by the grace of God. James 2 agrees 100% where he says that true faith-trust (which is a gift from God – Eph 2:8) SHALL bring forth visible fruit. WORKS he calls it. And Zechariah 7:9 lists those works/visible fruit – in agreement with other prophets like Hosea, Amos and Micah.
Verse 9 points out the 4 specific Hebrew words: Mishpat, Emed, Gesed, Ragam. Justice, truth, mercy, compassion.
JUSTICE: Do what is fair and just. Also in the courts.
TRUTH: Not only speak the truth, but also live it.
MERCY: To be kind and friendly and loving, particularly towards those to whom you do not have to be.
COMPASSION: The attitude of a mother towards her child. Whoever is filled with compassion will not oppress strangers and the poor and orphans and widows – in other words, those in society who are vulnerable.
In short: Obedience to God that flows forth into relationships – ALSO relationships towards your enemies and those beneath your standing.
Why does the Fruit of the Holy Spirit particularly manifest towards other people? Should it not manifest towards God himself? Aren’t things like prayer and fasting and Bible study and being involved in the church more important than something like treating someone else fairly and honestly? The Jews thought: Maybe I do exploit my servant somewhat, but when it comes to the month of fasting and prayer, I am absolutely faithful and committed!
While the Lord is saying, no, first put matters to rights with your servant, and then you can come to fasting and prayers. Because our dealings with other people reflect our life and walk with the Lord God. If our walk with God is absent, then our dealings with others are nothing more than doing our duty. Our walk with God puts flame and fire upon everything else.
To summarize: What do we learn from Zechariah 7?
1 External spirituality without the inner reality of a life with the Lord, is a big danger and must immediately be addressed.
2 Our eyes must be open for the sinful inclination to follow rules and rituals that was never given by the Lord.
3 Our eyes must be open for the inclination to follow all kinds of meaningless activities and think that it is true spirituality.
4 We must examine our motives asking ourselves WHY we are spiritually involved with what we are involved in. Is it truly about the honour of the Lord?
5 External religion without the inner reality of a sincere walk with the Lord leads to spiritual hardening of the heart, and it develops over a period of time when we place obedience to ourselves in place of obedience to God and fail to down to the authority of the Word. Consequently hardening of heart takes place. And hardening of heart leads to Godly discipline and even to the experience of prayers not being heard.
6 Repentance brings about a shift of focus to the Lord and away from ourselves. And that leads to obedience and has an effect on our relationship with other people. Inner restoration has a spontaneous visible effect.
7 The Lord Jesus Christ is the actual central focus of Zechariah 7. By standing and living before the Father in our place (on our behalf and in our shoes), HE fulfils the obedience that we cannot. The reality of a life with God is only found IN CHRIST. It is not something we can achieve with better and stricter devotion. More hours of prayer per day is a good thing, but it does not guarantee holiness and a true spiritual life. Also not the daily reading of 10 chapters in the Scriptures. Although that too is a good thing. But there is no mechanical solution for a true life with God. We cannot say: “Today I spent two hours in prayer, therefore I expect true spirituality as my due”.
The answer lies in the living Lord Jesus himself. The vine in whom the branch rests and the vine through whom life flows to the branch. And bears fruit.
Being a true Christian is about a moment by moment focus on Christ Jesus the Lord. Through faith-trust which is anchored in His Word, I consciously live in fellowship with God.
Translated by Marthie Wilson