Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Nov 26 2019 - Zechariah 7 – Justice and mercy not fasting

The message of this chapter of Zechariah is rather similar to that of Isaiah 58, which concerns the fasting that is pleasing to God. We shall return later to the connections between the two chapters.

The people of Israel observed a cycle of festivals throughout the year helping them to remember what the Lord their God had done for them – not wholly dissimilar to our observance of Christmas and Easter. In addition, after many of the people had been taken off into exile and Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, a series of fasts had been added to the calendar. These were observed particularly by those who had been left behind. They may have gathered together at the ruins of the temple, remembering the glories of past days with fasting and mourning as they looked for the day when God would have mercy upon his people. Barry Webb writes, "It is possible that the five poems of the book of Lamentations were composed specifically for use on these occasions."

As the work of rebuilding the temple progressed, some might have begun to question whether these regular periods of fasting and mourning were still necessary. People from Bethel came to ask the priests at the temple "Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?" (v. 3). This fast would have marked the destruction of the temple (see 2 Kings 25:8-9).

The answer that Zechariah gives is unexpected and hard-hitting. Nor is it directed only to the people from Bethel who had raised the question, it is addressed to "all the people of the land and the priests" (v. 5). Zechariah challenges them by asking whether their fasting over the seventy years of the exile was really directed to the Lord. Just to bring the point home, Zechariah says much the same of the periodic feasts. When the people gather together for feasts like the Passover or harvest celebration, do they meet to worship the Lord or just to party together – to eat, drink and be merry? It is perhaps easier to see how feasting can be self-centred than fasting, but both could have become ingrained religious exercises or habits while losing sight of their real purpose.

Zechariah makes reference to previous messages sent by the Lord through his prophets saying, "This is what the Lord Almighty said: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'” (v. 9). He may have been deliberately echoing Isaiah 58:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer… (Isaiah 58:6,9)

The rebuilding of the temple needed to be accompanied by spiritual renewal among the people rather a return to the hypocritical and self-serving external observance of religion that had provoked God's wrath and resulted in the exile. That spiritual renewal was to be seen in the way they treated one another and in their concern to obey all that the Lord had said to them through his word.

We also need to be careful that our acts of worship do not become mere habit or empty show. Whether fasting or feasting, confessing and mourning over our sin or rejoicing together in our salvation, we are to have the Lord Jesus constantly in our view; our worship is to be a genuine expression of devotion to our God, springing from a heart overflowing with thanksgiving for all that he has done for us. That same spirit must also shape our daily lives as we seek to reflect the character of the Lord Jesus in our treatment of those around us, particularly those in need.

Father God, teach us what it means to worship you in spirit and in truth. May our acts of devotion towards you spring from lives that have been touched and transformed by your love. May that love be displayed in the way we think, speak and act towards one another that you may be glorified through the life and witness of your people. Keep us from the ugly blasphemy of empty religion.

Peter Misselbrook