Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
This Chapter deals with a question from the Jews at Bethel about keeping a certain fast day. Zechariah 7:1-3 give the situation and state the question; and the balance of the chapter (Zechariah 7:4-14) reveals the prophet's response. Actually, this chapter is a unit with Zephaniah 8; because the prophet's answer was given in six statements. "Each statement is introduced with exact statements which indicate that the prophet's words were actually those of Jehovah." The six parts of the answer are:
1. Zechariah 7:4-7
2. Zechariah 7:8-14
3. Zechariah 8:1-7
4. Zechariah 8:9-13
5. Zechariah 8:14-17
6. Zechariah 8:18-23
Only two of these responses are given in this chapter.
"And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Darius, that the word of Jehovah came unto Zechariah in the fourth day of the ninth month, even in Chislev."
Some scholars have seized upon the unusual placement of the words, "The word of Jehovah came to Zechariah," in such a manner as to split the elements of the date in two, as an excuse for rejecting the passage, or for screaming "interpolation." Such views are the result of the prejudice that the prophet should always have followed some prescribed formula in giving the date. There is no valid reason whatever for such a prejudice, as proved by this variation from it. As the passage stands, the date is perfectly clear, as is also the truth that Zechariah was delivering God's message, not his own.
The time was November/December, 518 B.C., "nearly two years after the vision of Zechariah 1:7." Gill dated the arrival of the delegation on "December 4,518 B.C."
"Now they of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regemmelech, and their men, to entreat the favor of Jehovah, and to speak unto the priests of the house of Jehovah of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?"
"Now they of Bethel ..." Despite some questions regarding the text in this place, our version is as clear and sensible, and even more so, than any of the proposed alterations. A delegation of the returnees from Babylon, then living in Bethel, the site of the old pagan shrine where the golden calves had once been set up, are here represented as coming to Jerusalem to inquire of the prophets and priests regarding the keeping of one of the popular fast days which had been observed by the Jews for some 70 years.
The situation had been brought about by the fact that great progress was being made in rebuilding the temple; property was increasing; and there appeared to be some doubt as to the keeping of a fast day on the anniversary of the destruction of the first temple. Indeed, times had changed; a new temple was rising; and it was obviously inappropriate to keep weeping and fasting for the old one.
Their coming to Jerusalem was significant; because in that action, there lay the general acknowledgment that Jerusalem was the site of the altar where they were required to worship, and that God's will would be made known from that city.
"Sharezer and Regemmelech ..." "Sharezer is regarded as a Babylonian name, meaning `protect the king.'" "Regemmelech means `king's friend'"; and the significance of these names points to the period of the Babylonian captivity, and shows how the old Jewish custom of naming their children with names that honored God had given place to names oriented toward the pagan land where they were captive. It was high time indeed for God to have rescued them from a land that in time would have totally corrupted them.
"Should I weep in the fifth month ..." merely means, should we continue to keep the fast day. Keil identified this as. "The fifth month (Ab) on the tenth day; because, in Jeremiah 52:12,13, that was the day in which the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by fire." It appears, however, that this one fast day was made a test case for a total of several fast days which throughout their history the Jews had insisted upon observing. Keil listed these other fast days:
1. In the seventh month and third day, a fast marked the anniversary of the murder of Godallah (2 Kings 25:25,26).
2. In the fourth month and ninth day, they commemorated the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 39:2; 52:6,7).
3. In the tenth month and tenth day, they wept and fasted for the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:1; Jeremiah 39:1).
The particular fast day inquired about in this passage was that on the tenth day of the fifth month; but it is clear that whatever the judgment of the prophets might have revealed on this matter, it would also have been properly applied to all the others. The fifth day of the fifth month, remarkably, had been the anniversary of a number of disasters in Israel:
1. The decision of God not to allow the fathers to enter the promised land.
2. The destruction of the first temple.
3. The destruction of the second temple.
4. The conquest of the city of Bother in the time of Bar-Cochba.
5. The destruction of Jerusalem.
Now the most important thing about all of these fasts was that God had neither commanded nor authorized any one of them! Only one day in the year, the Day of Atonement, had God commanded His people to fast; yet they had added all these others! In the times of the Pharisees, that class of bigots even fasted "twice in the week? (Luke 18:12).
At this point, we anticipate the prophet's answer, which in fact was "No!" although it was stated in the form of some six observations from which that was the obvious and mandatory deduction. The primary reason for this was that all they were doing was actually "will worship," having nothing at all to do either with what God commanded or authorized. For this reason, we strongly disagree with many of the comments founded on these passages. For example, "It shows that ... the prophets cared infinitely more for righteousness than for ritual." What it actually shows is that God cared infinitely more for righteousness (which included the observances of ritual which he had commanded) than for the observance of rituals which men themselves had invented and adopted! We shall give other examples of this in the notes on the passages.
In this series on the Minor Prophets, there have been numerous instances in which similar passages have been used to "prove" that God cares nothing for observances of his ordinances and is interested only in what is allowed to be moral or ethical. This is absolutely wrong.
"The true fasting, which is well pleasing to God, consists not in a pharisaical abstinence from eating and drinking, but in the fact THAT MEN OBSERVE THE WORD OF GOD AND LIVE THEREBY.
This preoccupation with weeping, mourning, and fasting represented a radical change in Jewish religious life. Weeping and sorrow replaced hymns and thanksgivings; and Watts affirmed that, "The practice has survived into this century at the so-called `Wailing Wall' in Jerusalem." One other thing should be noted regarding that fast the men were asking about, the tenth day of the fifth month. It is mentioned in 2 Kings 28:8ff and in Jeremiah 52:13ff; but one of them cites the seventh day, and the other the tenth day. Mitchell pointed out that:
The Babylonians entered the temple on the seventh day and profaned it until the ninth, when they set fire to it and left it to burn until the tenth." (A quotation from the Jewish scholar Rodkinson, in the Babylonian Talmud).
"Then came the word of Jehovah of hosts unto me, saying, Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and in the seventh month, even these seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?"
Whereas this inquiry had come from a people's delegation at Bethel, the message of Zechariah was directed not only to all the people, but particularly also to those priests who had invented the unauthorized fasts and led the people in the perversion of the worship of God. Through them, the message applies to all who would come afterward, even down to the present time. What people invent for themselves, by way of religious ordinances and devices, is worthless. Such are not "unto the Lord." They, in fact, have nothing to do with God. "The answer to the question here is no." The fasts were worthless, not because God disapproved of fasting in principle, but because these particular fasts were not related to God's commandments.
"In the seventh month ..." This was the fast commemorating the murder of Gedaliah, and was one of several such fasts. See chapter introduction. That event had occurred, "in 587 B.C., just seventy years ago, when the greater part of the remnant of the Jews, contrary to the prophet's warning, fled into Egypt to escape punishment for the crime."
"That fast (like the others) was not of godly sorrow for past offences, but of selfish regret for loss of their country and their liberty. They pitied themselves, but they had not learned to fear Jehovah."
Here again is a convenient place for the liberal scholars to insert their dogma to the effect that: "What Yahweh requires primarily is not the keeping of fasts, but the observance of those moral demands which he had made of their ancestors." Or as Dummelow has it, "God demands not fasts, but observance of moral laws." Of course, when it is understood that such statements must be limited in application to the fasts, rituals, and ordinances that originate with men, it leaves clear the truth that God also is concerned that men obey the ordinances, etc. which God Himself has made binding upon mankind.
Regarding those particular fasts of the Jews under consideration here, "Sin was the cause of them; and if sin were forsaken, the fasting would no longer be necessary."
"And when ye eat, and when ye drink, do not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves. Should ye not hear the words which Jehovah cried by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, and the cities thereof round about her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited?"
These two verses conclude the prophet's first statement regarding the question of fasting. Instead of giving a flat "yes" or "no" as the answer to their problem, he first pointed out that what they really needed was to "hear the word of Jehovah."
"Should ye not hear the words which Jehovah cried by the former prophets ...?" What Israel needed was not divine wisdom regarding fasts that God had not ordained, but close attention to the Word of God as spoken through the prophets. It is of interest here that Zechariah by these words reiterated the divine sanction of all that those prophets had said. It was the failure of Israel to heed God's word and their rebellious apostasy from him that had resulted in the punishments and disasters that had befallen them. The cure: HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD!
"And the word of Jehovah came unto Zechariah, saying, Thus hath Jehovah of hosts spoken, saying, execute true judgment, and show kindness and compassion every man to his brother".
These and the following verses amount to a Bible lesson taught by Zechariah to his inquirers. They constitute somewhat of a thumbnail summary of what the previous prophets had taught.
We are purposely passing over the allegations of some critical scholars to the effect that this or that passage is an interpolation, or that it belongs in another place, or that some later editor placed it. The words of Leupold are profoundly true with regard to such things:
"Statements such as Zechariah 7:8 should not be classed as interpolations as the critics do. If redactors shifted about phrases such as these in a rather arbitrary manner, the current Old Testament text would have lost all right to serious consideration. Then, the current text could never have been treated as reverently as it was by our Lord and his disciples."
As Watts said, "Zechariah shows a knowledge of earlier prophecy at every step in his book. This is one of the explicit references to such."
"And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the sojourner, nor the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother."
This is a continuation of the teaching of the "former prophets," as a glance at Isaiah 1:16,17; Amos 5:14,24; Micah 6:8, etc. will show. "These ethical summaries draw heavily upon Israel's ancient covenant law." Watts reinforced such an opinion by pointing out that:
"Kindness" (Zechariah 7:9) is a word used to describe proper behavior within a contracted relationship, such as marriage, or the covenant.
"But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears that they might not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which Jehovah of hosts and sent by his Spirit by the former prophets: therefore there came great wrath from Jehovah of hosts."
These verses are one of the most eloquent witnesses in the Bible to the effect that the Law, that is, the Pentateuch, existed before the former prophets (all of them). The ancestors of that generation addressed by Zechariah had refused to hear the Law, which all of them possessed before the days of the prophets; for the text observes that they refused to hear the Law, AND the word spoken by the Spirit of God through the former prophets. This provides a categorical answer to the question of whether or not the Pentateuch existed before the pre-exilic prophets. It did exist; of course it did.
"They pulled away the shoulder ..." This expression has come down to modern times in the description of one unwilling to hear, who is said to "give a cold shoulder" to some proposition. Perhaps the metaphor is founded upon the rebellion of a beast against his yoke.
"Hearts as an adamant stone ..." Hailey noted this:
"In preparing Ezekiel to meet the stubbornness of the Jews in Babylon, God said, "As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead" ... It is thought that Jehovah referred to the diamond, harder than flint."
There is no sin greater than that of inordinate stubbornness manifested in an adamant refusal to hear God's holy word, through which men have the right to live, if only they will. The ancient Israel indeed had exceeded all permissible levels of behavior in such refusals. The inherent reason underlying these words of the prophet was his purpose of showing his questioners the utter foolishness of their ridiculous fasts. The events those fasts commemorated were directly the result of Israel's rebellious refusal to heed the Word of God. Any rules relative to an illegal fast commemorating the wrong thing would have been as ridiculous as the fasts. What was needed was for Israel to hear the word of the Lord, a thing they had long neglected to do.
"The former prophets ..." These included a number of names besides those of contributors to the sacred Canon. Dean provided this list of the former prophets: "Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1), Ahijah of Shilo (1 Kings 14:2,4), Jehu, son of Hanani (1 Kings 16:7), Elijah, and Elisha, Hosea, and Jonah, Iddo, Shemaiah, Hanani, and Huldah." There were also a number of the other Canonical prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Haggai, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Obadiah, Amos, Micah, Joel, Malachi, Nahum, and the one we are studying, Zechariah. Not all of these were "former," for some of them were contemporary with Zechariah. The prophetess Deborah should also be added to this list, and perhaps others. God had abundantly provided witnesses to the requirements of his sacred Law.
The astounding revelation of this passage is that Israel's obduracy was of their own doing. Matthew Henry commented on this:
"Nothing is so hard, so unmalleable, so inflexible, as the heart of a presumptuous sinner; and those whose hearts are hard may thank themselves; they are of their own hardening, and it is just with God to give them over to a reprobate sense, to the hardness and impenitence of their own hearts."
"And it is come to pass that, as he cried, and they would not hear, so they shall cry, and I will not hear, said Jehovah of hosts."
The change of persons here, "He cried... I will not hear," both having reference to Jehovah, is a source of perplexity to some students; this is due only to the fact that the prophets simply did not write like other people. This switch from one person to another, and such things as the scrambling of tenses, along with the failure always to form complete sentences, are absolutely par for the course in the sacred writings. It should be admitted by people who complain about such things, however, that the meaning is absolutely certain. The change as given in the New English Bible gives the correct meaning, of course; but it is not a translation of this verse. "As they did not listen when I called, so I did not listen when they called."
"But I will scatter them with a whirlwind among all the nations which they have not known. So that all the land was desolate after them, so that no man passed through nor returned: for they laid the pleasant land desolate."
Here again we have a change of tense: "I will scatter ... the land was desolate after them"; but there is a discernible reason for it. The prophecy, "I will scatter ... etc." had just been fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity and in the Assyrian captivity preceding it; but this was by no means to be the end of the "scattering of Israel," which would occur again after their final rejection of the Messiah, the destruction of their temple, their capital, their political entity, and the dispersion of the Jewish population all over the world throughout history; hence, the use of the future tense here. The immediate switch to the past tense refers to the desolation and destruction that had already accompanied the scatterings already accomplished. "What had happened in the past was a sign of what would happen to them in the future." Zechariah doubtless expected the returnees to draw a conclusion from all of this, which Gill stated thus:
"Therefore, those who mourned the just punishments of God (by keeping all those fast days) had best leave off such meaningless ceremonies and themselves heed the teaching of the former prophets."
This concludes the second of the six statements made by Zechariah in response to the inquiry of the delegation from Bethel.
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