JUSTICE, NOT FASTING Zechariah 7–9
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely” (Zech. 8:16–17).This passage deals with a repeated Old Testament theme. The measure of true religion is not in any outward observance, but in the quality of one’s daily life.
Fasting in Old Testament times was never undertaken to lose weight. It always had a religious purpose. A fast might be undertaken by a person desperate for an answer to prayer, as in 2 Samuel 12:16–22 or Jeremiah 36:1–10. A fast often expressed deep grief and sorrow, as in 1 Samuel 31:13. Or fasting might indicate repentance, as in Joel 2:12–15. Fasting was also associated with the Day of Atonement. Fasting to show repentance is the only fast commanded in the Old Testament (Lev. 16:29, 31), and was intended to underline the solemn character of that high holy day. Fasting in biblical times usually meant going without food only from sunrise to sunset. In Christ’s time, especially religious Jews fasted each Monday and Thursday. One early church father encouraged Christians to fast too, but changed the days to Tuesday and Friday! The New Testament describes two kinds of fasting: one, a public display intended to promote the notion that the fasting person is especially spiritual (cf. Matt. 6:16–18; Luke 18:12), and the other Spirit—led when seeking divine guidance or empowerment (cf. Matt. 4:1–2; Luke 4:1–3; Acts 13:2; 14:23). Zechariah 7–8, which is Scripture’s most direct discussion of fasting, suggests that we carefully examine our motives before undertaking a fast and makes it clear that God is far more concerned that His people live righteous and holy lives than with fasting.
When a delegation from Bethel asked about fasting (7:1–3), God rebuked them (vv. 4–7) and called for commitment to justice (vv. 8–14). Still, God promised Israel His favor (8:1–17). She will know joy in worship (vv. 18–23) and her enemies will be punished (9:1–8) when her King comes (vv. 9–13) and her Lord appears (vv. 14–17).
Understanding the Text
“Should I mourn and fast?” Zech. 7:1–3 The fasts the men of Bethel inquired about were fasts instituted by the exiles to commemorate events associated with the fall of Jerusalem, some 68 years earlier. The first generation of exiles felt that fall deeply, and undoubtedly had mourned with great sincerity. But now another generation, just 2 years away from finishing a new Jerusalem temple, wondered if there were any reason to keep the traditional fasts. Note two things about the query. First, God had not commanded these fasts, so they were not binding. Yet it was right of the men of Bethel to raise the question with Jerusalem’s spiritual leaders and seek God’s guidance. However our religious traditions began, it is wise to seek God’s guidance before changing them. Second, the fasts had become mere tradition to the present generation. There is a difference between “tradition” and “mere tradition.” What may be a vital form by which to express a real spiritual experience can seldom be passed to the next generation without becoming a mere tradition: form without the meaning or vitality. Each generation should have freedom to find ways to express its personal experience with the Lord. “Was it really for Me that you fasted?” Zech. 7:4–7 God answered the question about fasting through the Prophet Zechariah. His answer was through a pointed question. Did the people really fast “for Me” all those years, or were they fasting for themselves? In essence, God asked, “Were you sorry for your sins—or just sorry you got caught!” Was the motive for fasting one of guilt for the sins that caused the Exile? Or was the grief simply self-pity, a selfish expression of that very attitude which had led earlier generations to desert God in the first place? What a question for us to ask ourselves when we experience the discipline of the Lord. We’re sorry. We hurt. But does our heart ache over the sin, or just over the punishment? Have we shifted the focus of our concern to God, or are we still concerned only about ourselves? “This is what the Lord Almighty says” Zech. 7:8–14. The men of Bethel had asked, “Should we fast?” God seemed to dismiss this question as unimportant, and responded, “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (vv. 9–10). How often we become passionately concerned about unimportant issues! In Jesus’ time the Pharisees were careful to tithe the leaves of tiny herbs grown by their doorsteps. But, Christ said, they neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). One of Satan’s most effective ploys is to get believers to major on the minor. When the less significant dominates our thinking, we will ignore the truly central aspects of our faith. Note that both Zechariah and Jesus focused on a lifestyle marked by justice, mercy, and compassion. If we are faithful in showing our commitment to the Lord by living holy and loving lives, the “little things” will fall into place. Do you feel God wants you to fast? Then fast. But you know God wants you to do justice, show mercy, and care for the needy. Compared to these, fasting has at best a minor role in your spiritual life. “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem” Zech. 8:1–15. When God said, “I am very jealous for Zion” He meant, “I have a passionate desire to do her good.” The Hebrew word translated “jealous” is also rendered “zeal,” and depicts a deep and abiding passion for its object. What God said through His prophet to men concerned about fasting is this: “It’s My love that motivates Me to do you good, not whether or not you fast.” What will God’s love motivate Him to do for His Old Testament people? He will fill Jerusalem’s streets with healthy, happy people (vv. 4–5). He will bring those who are dispersed back home (vv. 7–8). He will make the land productive (v. 12), and the people a blessing to all nations (v. 13). We can have confidence that the Lord, in His love, will do the same for us. We may at times experience discipline. But we can claim for ourselves the promise that the Lord made to the little community in Judea: “Now I have determined to do good again to Jerusalem and Judah. Do not be afraid” (v. 15). “These are the things you are to do” Zech. 8:16–17. How significant that this expression of God’s will follows rather than precedes the promise of verse 15. Why is that significant? If “the things you are to do” had come first, we might have concluded that God blesses us because of what we do for Him. Since, however, “the things you are to do” follow the promise, we understand that our obedience is prompted by gratitude. The legalist does what is right in an effort to win God’s favor. The believer does what is right because he knows that he has already obtained God’s favor through grace. We obey God because we love Him. We seek to please God because we understand all that He has done for us. “The fasts . . . will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals” Zech. 8:18–23. The Jewish Talmud links each of these fasts with a specific event related to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 G.p. The fast of the fourth month commemorated the day the walls of the city were breached, of the fifth the day the temple was burned, of the seventh, the date Gedaliah was assassinated (cf. Jer. 41:2), of the tenth, the day the siege of the city was begun. Why should these dates be celebrated joyfully, rather than remembered with sorrow? In part at least because these moments of intense anguish for the inhabitants of Jerusalem were at the same time occasions of divine purification. Out of the ruins of the city and temple came a spiritual revival that turned the Jewish people away from idolatry, back to Scripture and to God. In the last analysis, every purifying judgment God imposes on His own, no matter how painful it may seem, will one day be remembered with joy. In God’s time we will see its purpose, and will realize how the Lord used it to draw us closer to Him. Then, when joy floods in to force even the memory of anguish out, we will understand. “I will defend My house against marauding forces” Zech. 9:1–8. When God spoke through Zechariah, Judah was an utterly insignificant district in a mighty Gentile empire. Weak and helpless, the Jews could look back over centuries of oppression by many foreign powers. As the theme of blessing was continued, God promised to deal with Judah’s external enemies. You and I too are subject to two kinds of hostile forces. There are the hostile forces within us—the pull toward sin, the fascination with temptations—and the forces outside—circumstances, a corrupt society, personal enemies, Satan himself. We are responsible to deal with only one: the enemy within. As we commit our hearts and even our desires to the Lord, we can be sure that He will defend us too and “never again will an oppressor overrun My people.”
Gentle, but Oh So Tough (Zech. 9)
For years Nicholson ran ads picturing a big, rough-looking workman with a beatific smile holding up one of their files. And the ads always said, “Tough, but Oh So Gentle.” This chapter reminds me of those ads. Of course Zechariah turned the ads around in order to introduce us to the Person who will fulfill all those wonderful promises God made to His people. Yet in just a few verses, he showed a gentle and tough side of the coming Messiah. First there’s the gentle side (v. 9). The image is significant, for in the ancient East kings went to war riding horses. When they wished to signify peace, they traveled on a donkey. We think, of course, of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, which Zechariah predicted here. Jesus came in peace, to bring peace. But the Jewish people wanted a conqueror, who would lead an uprising against Rome. Yet only through the covenant sealed by the blood of the Man of Peace could all who are captive to sin within have a prospect of peace. But then Zechariah went on. The Man of Peace will appear again, this time as “the Lord . . . over them” (v. 14). Then He will sound the war trumpet, to shield His people and destroy all their enemies (v. 15). He will come again as the conqueror Israel yearned for, “save them on that day as the flock of His people.” Only then will all realize that that gentle King is also the Lord Almighty, the universe’s sovereign Lord. Gentle, yes. But God, and as God mighty to save. In a way, history is recapitulated in our experience with Jesus. We see Him first suffering and dying for our sins. We are moved by His love, we respond to His gentleness. Then, as we respond in faith, we discover His resurrection power. The suffering Saviour is also our resurrected Lord, and we kneel before Him in full surrender. How important not to have a one-sided vision of Jesus. The Old Testament’s quiet King is also Israel’s overpowering God. Our gentle Jesus is Lord of all. We know Jesus well only when we are familiar with both aspects of His identity. We know Jesus well only when we know Him both as Saviour and as Lord.
If you know Jesus only as Saviour, don’t miss knowing Him as Lord.