Chapter 7 marks a slight change in direction in the book of Zechariah. The eight visions Zechariah had seen are now over.
And in comes a delegation from the city of Bethel.
The group had a question for the priests and the prophets who were operating out of the temple, which was being re-constructed. As best we can tell, the work was about halfway done. The year was 518 BC.
The delegation wanted to know whether the residents of Bethel should continue to fast during the fifth month of the year. The people each year during the fifth month had been fasting and mourning the destruction of the original temple – which had been demolished by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:8-9).
Their question – or “entreaty” – was, “Can we stop now?”
God gave Zechariah the words to say, and God didn’t answer the question immediately. Instead, God answered the question with a question: “Was it for me that you fasted?” And God followed it up with another question: “And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?”
The people wanted to know whether they could stop the ritual practice of grieving over the loss of the temple. After all, the new temple was moving steadily toward completion. Surely they could stop this ritual practice. It wasn’t necessary anymore.
But God wanted to know whether that ritual practice had anything to do with Him in the first place.
This section of Zechariah’s book seems to be about proper worship. What is proper worship anyway? What do we do when we worship? Where should our focus be when we worship? Is it possible for us to worship wrongly? And by “worship,” we can include all the things we do for the sake of God – to honor or seek him. And this certainly would include fasting.
These are probably pretty good questions for today when our corporate worship lives have been upended. We haven’t been able to gather like we have gathered in the past. A lot of us feel that our freedom to worship has been encroached upon by the government. And I’ve found myself asking God, “Should we try to get the church together anyway? Should we defy the government’s order and just gather?”
I wonder whether God would answer me today like this: “When you gathered all those times before the lockdown, was it for me that you gathered?”
Ah, I wonder whether there is anything about our worship that God could criticize. It is possible to say we are doing things for God when we really are doing them for some other reason. It might be we do those things out of habit – because that’s simply what we’ve always done. “I always go to church on Sundays!” Or it might be because we feel like we need to be seen doing those things. Or it might be because we desire to alleviate our consciences by doing those things. Or it might be because we want some good feeling because we did those things.
And it might have nothing to do with the praise and adoration of our Creator and Lord – wanting to give him what he is owed.
Jesus had something to say about spiritual practice and motive:
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. …
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. …
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. …” (Matthew 6:1-18).
Jesus clearly had nothing good to say about people who did spiritual things while simply desiring to look good in front of others. They were people who wanted to be “seen” by others. Jesus wants us to have pure motives. A desire for the One True God is the only pure motive.
When it comes to our own practices – why do we do them? Why do we read the Bible? Why do we pray? Why do we go to church (or, today, why do we desire to go to church)? Is there any motive other than simply the praise and adoration of the One True God?
Zechariah 7 closes out with God – through the prophet – urging the people to live in the way he had called them to live. They were to render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another, refrain from oppressing vulnerable people, and never devise evil against one another. These are four actions God’s chosen people were to carry out.
And God noted four reactions to his commandments that his people had in the past. They didn’t pay attention to him, they turned their “stubborn” shoulders to him, they stopped their ears so they couldn’t hear him, and they made their hearts as hard as diamonds against his Word.
The people’s reaction resulted in judgment. I suppose for the returned exiles of Zechariah’s day, this was a warning. If judgment came once, it could come again.
Overall, this rebuke of God’s people feels like a rebuke of selfishness, or of a self-seeking attitude. The principle here seems to be that God wants pure worship, pure obedience, and a humble and supple heart in his people. He doesn’t want them callously to turn away from God or their faith family. His people are to be marked by truth, kindness, mercy, and love.
We should probably ask ourselves, after reading this chapter – Are we listening to what “the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets?”
The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
The writer of Hebrews wrote, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Are we listening to God speaking?