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IV. MESSAGES CONCERNING HYPOCRITICAL FASTING CHS. 7-8
A question posed by representative Israelites provided the occasion for God to give four messages that Zechariah collected in the text here. They all deal with the issue of empty ritualism, which the original question introduced.
"As early as Zechariah 1:3-6 it was clear that Zechariah was interested in the spiritual renewal of the postexilic community. Here he deals further with this problem. The purpose of chapters 7 and 8 is to impress on the people their need to live righteously in response to their past judgment and future glory." [Note: Barker, p. 643.]
A prophetic message came to Zechariah from the Lord in 518 B.C. The fourth day of the ninth month would have been in early December. Chislev is the Babylonian name of the month. This message, which comprises the following four messages in chapters 7 and 8, came to the prophet almost two years after he received the eight night visions (cf. Zechariah 1:7) and about halfway through the period of temple reconstruction (520-515 B.C.).
A. The question from the delegation from Bethel 7:1-3
Israelites who lived in Bethel, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 2:28; Nehemiah 7:32; Nehemiah 11:31), sent two representatives to ask the priests and prophets in the capital about how they should worship the Lord (cf. Malachi 1:9). The names of the two ambassadors were Babylonian suggesting that they had been born in Babylonia during the Captivity. Another view is that a Jew living in Babylon named Bethel-Sharezar (lit. house of God-protect the king), whose title was Regem-melech (lit. king’s friend) indicating his royal authority (from Darius), came with his men to pose the question. [Note: Baldwin, pp. 142-43.] A slightly different translation yields the view that Bethel-Sharezar sent Regem-melech and his men. Whoever these men were, they wanted to know if they should continue to weep and abstain from food (i.e., to fast), which had become traditional but which the Mosaic Law did not require. The only fast that the Mosaic Law prescribed was on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; Leviticus 23:27-32).
"Coming as they did from a place long associated with apostate worship (1 Kings 12:29-33; 2 Kings 10:29; Jeremiah 48:13; Amos 3:14; Amos 4:4; Amos 7:13), these men would be particularly concerned to determine orthodox praxis on behalf of those who sent them." [Note: Merrill, p. 208.]
There were four fasts that the Jews in exile had instituted to commemorate various events connected with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (cf. Zechariah 8:19). The one in the fifth month memorialized the destruction of the temple (cf. 2 Kings 25:8-10). [Note: The Illustrated Family Encyclopedia of the Living Bible, 8:93; Peter Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration, p. 207.] Since the temple was almost complete (cf. Ezra 6:16), did the Lord want His people to continue to fast? The people knew that the captivity would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12), and 68 of these had already past. It seemed to them that fasting over the destruction of the temple might be inappropriate since the Lord had enabled them to rebuild the temple and reestablish worship. The question was a reasonable one.
"What may have appeared to be an innocent question about the propriety of fasting was instead a question fraught with hypocrisy, as YHWH’s response puts beyond any doubt. It therefore appears that the query to Zechariah by the Bethelites may not have been so much a matter of piety as it was of posturing. May it not be that the delegation was trying more to impress the prophet than to gain instruction from him?" [Note: Merrill, p. 209. Cf. McComiskey, p. 1125.]
The Lord spoke to Zechariah, and he proceeded to inform the messengers, all the people in the land, and the priests. The issue that the messengers had raised had widespread implications for the whole nation. The Lord asked rhetorically if the people had really observed the fasts that they had instituted in the fifth and seventh months for 70 years for His benefit or for themselves. Seventy years is a round number for the length of the Captivity here, assuming the 70 years had not completely run their course yet. The fast in the seventh month commemorated the assassination of Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:25; Jeremiah 41:2). [Note: The Illustrated . . ., 8:93.] Evidently the people had turned these events into occasions for self-pity over their physical condition rather than engaging in prayer and genuine spiritual repentance.
B. The Lord’s rebuke 7:4-7
This is the first of four messages that Zechariah received from the Lord that bear on the question just raised. That there were four separate messages seems clear since each one begins with the same preamble: "The word of the Lord came" (Zechariah 7:4; Zechariah 7:8; Zechariah 8:1; Zechariah 8:18). The first two, in chapter 7, are negative, and the last two, in chapter 8, are positive.
Likewise when the people ate and drank they did it for themselves rather than to please the Lord. They were simply perpetuating the selfishness for which former prophets had rebuked their ancestors. The prophets in view had lived before the captivity when the whole land and its cities were still full of inhabitants (e.g., Isaiah 58:3-9; Joel 1:14; Joel 2:12). Now there were far fewer Israelites occupying the land. The Negev to the south of Beersheba and the foothills (Shephelah) toward the Mediterranean coast were grazing and agricultural areas in which the returnees had not yet settled.
"Note that the inquiry put by the Bethel committee is not being answered directly. In fact, throughout chapters 7 and 8 no direct answer is offered. The reason is: the question is not an important issue. However, the attitude revealed by that question is of sufficient moment to receive exhaustive treatment." [Note: Leupold, p. 133.]
Zechariah received another message from the Lord related to this inquiry. The sovereign Lord commanded His people to dispense justice (Heb. mishpat), to exercise kindness (Heb. hesed) and compassion (Heb. rahamim) toward each other, not to oppress the weak and vulnerable among them, and not to plot evil against each other.
"Here . . . is a concise yet comprehensive range of ethical teaching condensed into four pithy utterances." [Note: Ellis, p. 1037. Cf. Micah 6:8.]
"Morality is certainly not piety, but the piety which does not include morality is a mere delusion. It mocks God and insults man." [Note: J. P. Lange, ed., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, vol. 7: The Book of Zechariah Expounded, by Talbot W. Chambers, p. 58.]
C. The command to repent 7:8-14
Having referred to the words of the former prophets (Zechariah 7:7), Zechariah now summarized them as an exhortation to his own generation of Israelites.
When the former generations of Israelites had heard these commands, they refused to pay attention to the Lord. They turned away from Him stubbornly like a rebellious ox, and they put their fingers in their ears so they would not hear Him. They hardened their hearts (minds and wills) like flint (Heb. shamir, diamond) so they could not hear the Law or the Holy Spirit’s messages through the former prophets whom God had sent to them.
"This remarkable doctrine of the Holy Spirit as mediator of God’s word to the prophets, who were themselves its mediators, has no parallels in the prophetic books. . . . Zechariah is the first to record this aspect of the doctrine of the Spirit." [Note: Baldwin, p. 147.]
God had proceeded to dull the people’s ears in discipline because they would not hear (cf. Isaiah 6:10; Acts 28:27). Consequently great wrath had come from the Lord against them.
"One indispensable ingredient in true spirituality is a dogged attentiveness to familiar truths, but they did not ’pay attention.’" [Note: Barker, p. 647.]
Since the forefathers refused to listen to the Lord’s Spirit when He called to them (cf. Nehemiah 9:20; Nehemiah 9:30; 2 Peter 1:21), the Lord refused to listen to them when they called to Him in prayer (cf. Jeremiah 11:11-14). Instead He scattered them among many nations, as though a windstorm had blown them off the Promised Land (cf. Deuteronomy 28:36-37; Deuteronomy 28:64-68; Hosea 13:3). As a result, the land had become desolate with none of the Israelites returning to it during the Captivity (cf. Deuteronomy 28:41-42; Deuteronomy 28:45-52). This desolation of the formerly "pleasant land" of Israel was due to the sin of the people (cf. Psalms 106:24; Jeremiah 3:19; Daniel 11:16; Daniel 11:41).
". . . while Zechariah may well not have answered the original enquiry directly, he had nevertheless taken up the very essence of ritual in the heart of the worshiper, which was that the outward form of religious activity was useless and lifeless without an accompanying spirit of obedience, confession and repentance." [Note: Ellis, pp. 1037-38.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Zechariah 7". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
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