Fasting Without Fidelity

Zechariah 7:1–14

A delegation from Bethel arrived in Jerusalem seeking counsel from priests and prophets concerning fasting. They asked whether the annual fast commemorating the destruction of Solomon’s Temple should be continued since a rebuilt Temple was well on its way toward completion. Apparently people were growing weary of keeping this fast, along with others they had instituted while exiled in Babylon. These fasts had become burdensome rituals devoid of spiritual significance.

In chapters 7 and 8, God addressed the delegation’s question on fasting. Zechariah presented His answer in four messages that told the Bethel delegation what it needed to hear, not what it expected to hear. Each message was introduced with a form of the phrase the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts came to me, saying (7:4, 8; 8:1, 18).

The People’s Question
Zechariah began by providing the date when he received the four messages from God: “Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev” (v. 1). The prophet received this revelation on December 7, 518 B.C., 22 months after receiving the eight night visions (1:7).

Zechariah further stated, “when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the Lᴏʀᴅ” (v. 2). A better translation of the Hebrew is, “Now the town of Bethel had sent Sherezer and Regem-melech and their men to seek the favor of the Lᴏʀᴅ.” Instead of taking the Hebrew word bethel to mean the town by that name, both the King James and New King James versions recorded its literal meaning (“house of God”). However, the phrase house of God does not refer to the Temple under construction at the time of Zechariah’s prophecy. The proper translation is “Bethel,” referring to the city 12 miles north of Jerusalem, an ancient capital of the northern kingdom and the seat of idolatrous worship before it fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

Sherezer and Regem-melech are Babylonian names, indicating these two men were born during Judah’s exile in Babylon. Many Jewish people, including the prophet Daniel, received Babylonian names while in exile. These men probably joined the returnees from Babylon to rebuild the city of Bethel (Ezra 2:28).

The delegation came to inquire of the priest and prophets: “‘Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?’” (v. 3), referring to weeping over the destruction of Solomon’s Temple after the Babylonians destroyed it on the ninth of Av (August 9) in 586 B.C. (2 Ki. 25:8). This was a self-imposed fast, not ordained by God. The Jewish people developed it during their captivity in Babylon to remember the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple.

Over time, they developed mourning practices for the ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av) to deny themselves comfort and pleasure by refraining from using perfume and cosmetics, wearing leather shoes, bathing, shaving, and cutting hair. And they sit on low stools as a sign of mourning. It is customary to read Lamentations, Jeremiah, and parts of the Talmud that refer to the Temple’s destruction and the laws of mourning.

The Israelites also established other fasts in relation to the Babylonian invasion. (See 8:19.) The fourth-month fast was in memory of the city’s walls being destroyed (Jer. 39:2), the seventh-month fast memorialized Gedaliah’s assassination (2 Ki. 25:22–26), and the 10th-month fast was in memory of the Babylonian invasion (2 Ki. 25:1–2).

The phrase as I have done for so many years (v. 3) seems to reveal that the delegation’s true desire was to discontinue the self-imposed ceremony of fasting and mourning over the destruction of the Temple. Since the Temple was being rebuilt, these men probably felt it unnecessary to continue the previous practice. Zechariah did not answer their question until he gave his fourth message (8:18–19).

The Prophet’s Rebuke
In his first message, Zechariah launched into the motive of fasting with the words Then the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts came to me, saying (v. 4). The Lord’s message through Zechariah was addressed to “all the people…and to the priests” (v. 5).

God asked the people two rhetorical questions about fasting. The first was, “‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for me—for me?’” (v. 5).

Thus Zechariah asked the people whether they fasted out of a dead, formal ritualism or from a heartfelt commitment. The question implies that their fasting was selfish and not God-honoring. If such fasting does not honor God, it is mere external formalism and a total waste of time and effort.

The second rhetorical question brings out the true motive of their fasting: “When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?” (v. 6). In other words, they fasted and feasted for a feeling of self-satisfaction. It was outward, ritualistic show, empty of spiritual reality; God had no part in it.

Zechariah continued by asking his own question: “‘Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lᴏʀᴅ proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’” (v. 7). The Israelites had received numerous warnings to obey God’s Word from their hearts during times of prosperity while living in the land. All their religious observances, such as fasting, were of no value, no matter how well executed, if not done from the heart in obedience to God’s Word.

Warning from the earlier prophets went unheeded during Israel’s time of peace and prosperity. Judah did not listen then, but ought not she to listen now to God’s warning? If these returning exiles ignored God’s Word from Zechariah, they would be in great danger of provoking divine discipline as their forefathers had done. And if they exercised obedience to God’s Word, they, too, could enjoy the peace and prosperity their forefathers had. They stood at a crossroads.

The Past’s Warning
In his second message, Zechariah urged the returnees to remember that abuse in the area of social and personal relationships had brought divine discipline on both the land and their forefathers. Again, the Lord reiterated the age-old commandments the Jewish people were obligated to keep toward one another:

Then the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother’” (vv. 8–10).

The Lord told Israel that duty to one’s neighbor indicates a spiritual commitment to Him. He requires that justice be administered without partiality or bias. “mercy [loving-kindness] and compassion [love, pity, and concern for hurting people]” must be shown. One must not take advantage of widows, orphans, strangers, or the poor. In fact, the prophets continually exhorted the Israelites concerning their responsibility to love and care for these people.

Furthermore, the Law forbids plotting or imagining evil, revenge, or injury against another Israelite; these actions actually constitute the first step downward to domestic, business, and religious evil. Those who practiced such things lacked a spiritual relationship with God and were in danger of bringing judgment on themselves, as did their preexilic forefathers.

Zechariah listed the ways their forefathers had responded to the messages of the preexilic prophets:

But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts (vv. 11–12).

Zechariah said their forefathers resisted and pulled away their shoulders (a sign of rejection) from submitting to God’s ways as an ox turns its neck away from being yoked. They also plugged their ears to God’s prophet. Refusing to listen to his message, they resisted his warning and held it in contempt. They made their hearts like “adamant stone,” meaning their hearts were impervious to God’s Word (Ezek. 3:7–9). This attitude caused God to pour His wrath out on Judah and yoke the survivors to the cruel nation of Babylon for 70 years of slavery.

The Lord’s Retribution
Zechariah addressed his second message to the Bethel delegation, recounting what the Lord did to their preexilic forefathers:

“Therefore it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen,” says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts. “But I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations which they had not known. Thus the land became desolate after them, so that no one passed through or returned; for they made the pleasant land desolate” (vv. 13–14).

Israel’s disobedience to God brought His retribution on Israel. First, God turned a deaf ear to the Israelites’ crying prayer for help. They refused to hear the prophet’s message, so He acted in kind by choosing not to hear them.

Second, God dispersed their forefathers among the nations. The Lord scattered them like a tornado or hurricane swiftly removes everything its whirlwind touches (Lev. 26:14–43; Dt. 28:15–68). Israel was to be scattered “among all the nations which they had not known” (v. 14): Assyria (722 B.C.), Babylon (586 B.C.), Rome (A.D. 70), and then the world.

Third, the land of Israel was made desolate. Once called the “pleasant land” (literally, “land of desire, delight,” v. 14) and “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8), it now lay in ruins.

Whenever the Jewish people were dispossessed from their land, it became desolate and undeveloped. The only time the land blooms is when the Jewish people are in it. The past 1,900 years have shown this to be the case. With the return of the Jewish people in the 20th century, Israel has come alive and continues to be a modern, thriving country.

The Bethel delegation, along with all of Israel, was called on to heed Zechariah’s warning, so the nation would not repeat the error of its forefathers.

On the final page of the Old Testament (2 Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew canon), we read, “But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lᴏʀᴅ arose against His people, till there was no remedy” (2 Chr. 36:16).

Is there not a message for our generation in these words? We, too, must listen to God’s Word; or the same judgment will befall us.

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