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Zechariah 7-8: Of Fasting and Feasting Print E-mail
Sunday, 28 March 2010

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Christians should be characterized by joy.  We should be a joyful people.  The Church should be a place where joyful people gather.  Of course, this does not mean that we never have struggles or difficulties.  It does not mean that we never face persecution.  No, we are promised that these will come if we are true followers of Christ (see 2 Timothy 3:12).  Yet, even in the midst of hardships, Christians are to be joyful.  We are to look to Christ and rejoice in all that He has done, is doing, and will do for us.  Our joy rests securely in His person and work.

When Zechariah began his ministry, the Israelites had not been a joyful people for many years.  As we have mentioned in the past few weeks, Israel had been carried off into Exile by the Babylonians.  They had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.  Their leaders had been killed or forced to serve the foreign kings.  Godís judgment upon them for their sin had been swift and severe.  They had many reasons to mourn, and mourn they did.  In fact, they had set up three specific dates to mourn and fast over what had happened to them.  They had been fasting on these particular days for many years.

Yet, things were beginning to change.  God had rescued His people from Exile and returned them to Jerusalem.  The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt.  So then, was Israel to continue in their mourning and fasting?  Were they to keep doing what they had been doing for the past seventy years?  Well, a group of men from the city of Bethel come up to Jerusalem to ask Zechariah that very question.  Look at 7:1-3.  Should they keep fasting?  Zechariahís answer to that question is found in the rest of chapter seven and chapter eight.  As is usual with the prophets, his answer is not a simple Ďyesí or Ďnoí.  The answer that we are given is not just applicable for their particular situation.  Rather, it is a warning from God for all of His people.  He wants them (and us) to offer true devotion and gives two warnings for how we can do that.  I want to spend the rest of our time this morning considering these two warnings.

First, do not be selfish and mistreat one another (7:4-14).

The first part of Zechariahís answer concerning the question of fasting involves a rebuke of their practices.  Look at 7:4-7.  Before the Lord gives a response to whether or not they should continue fasting, He first wants to address the motivation behind their fasting.  They were not mourning over their sin and what they had done to deserve Godís judgment, they were simply fasting over the terrible consequences that they were facing.  They were only sorry for how things had turned out.  They were not concerned with God and their shameful treatment of His name.  No, they were only concerned with themselves and how tough their lives had become.  Perhaps they even thought that through fasting they could manipulate God and bring about better circumstances.  Either way, God was not pleased with their selfish motives.

Going on, Zechariah notes that God was not pleased with their mistreatment of others either.  Look at 7:8-10.  Here we find the central imperative of Godís message to His people at this time.  Just like other Israelites had done in the past, they thought that they could keep God happy by simply going through the motions of mourning and fasting, while paying little attention to how they treat others.  Yet, the prophets speak against this attitude over and over again.  We cannot simply go through the motions of worship and then take advantage of others.  We cannot sing Godís praise and then abuse His people.  God wants the people in Zechariahís day to understand what really counts when it comes to worshipping Him, namely obedience to His commands.  We will see this same emphasis on obedience in 8:16-17, which we will consider in a moment.

Why should Israel turn from their selfish ways and stop mistreating the weak and poor?  Well, in one sense they should do this because it is true worship of God.  Anything less is just going through the motions.  Yet, they should also consider what happened to the former generations who refused to listen to these truths.  Look at 7:11-14.  Other generations had gone through the motions in their worship of Yahweh.  They had given Him lip-service devotion while disobeying His commands.  The prophets warned them, but they hardened their hearts against the truth.  How did this turn out for them?  The Lord rejected them, gave them over into Exile, and took away their land.  The Lordís call comes to them now through Zechariah: ĎSurely you will not make the same mistakes that they did.  Surely your devotion will be genuine.  Surely you will obey my commands to take care of the poor and the needy.í 

Before the Lord answers their question about fasting, He wants to correct their understanding of devotion.  He warns them against being selfish and mistreating one another.  He goes on in chapter eight to offer another warning.

Second, do not fear the past but learn from it (8:1-23).

The main imperatives of this chapter are found in verses 9-13.  Look at verses 9-10 with me.  The Lord reminds them that things have been difficult.  Before they started rebuilding the Temple things were particularly hard (as we saw in Haggai 1:4-11).  Yet, in verses 11-13 we see that things are changing.  Look at those with me.  The Lord is going to reverse their fortunes.  No longer will they labor in vain.  No longer will their crops be unsatisfying.  No longer will they be taunted and cursed by the nations.  So then, what are they supposed to do in light of this promise?  The Lord answers: Fear not, but let your hands be strong.  They are not to fear that they have lost the Lordís favor.  No, He is their God and He will save them.  Rather, they are to continue building the Temple and turn to Him in obedience.

Why should they fear not and turn to Him in obedience?  Again, as we have already seen, they are to do this because of the future promises that God has given them.  He will provide for them and take of them and again show them His favor.  But this is not all.  We see in 8:1-8 that the Lord promises that He and His people will return to Jerusalem.  The first three verses tell us of the Lordís return.  Look at those with me.  The Lord has set His favor once again on Jerusalem.  He loves her fervently.  Likewise, He will restore His people in the city.  Look at verses 4-7.  He will bring His people from the east and the west.  They shall be His people and He shall be their God.  Even during Zechariahís day this hope is already being partially fulfilled, for many have already returned to Jerusalem.  It will be ultimately fulfilled when Christ returns and takes His Bride to dwell with Him in the New Jerusalem.  Such promises of future blessing call Godís people to fear not and to continue to obey Him.

The Lord also promises to do good to His people.  Look at verses 14-15.  Instead of simply fearing the past, they are to learn from it.  What exactly are they to learn?  They are to learn that the Lord fulfills His purposes.  He purposed to punish Israel for their disobedience and He accomplished that purpose by sending them into Exile.  Now He has purposed something different for Israel: I purposed in these days to bring good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  This argument rests on our belief in the sovereignty of God.  Either God can and does bring about all His purposes or He does not.  If He does (as the Bible teaches us over and over again) then we can trust in His promises.  Yet, His sovereignty does not relieve us of responsibility.  In fact, notice how Israel is to respond to Godís sovereign purpose to do them good in verses 15b-17.  Again, they are to fear not and to obey His commands by taking care of the needy.  God is going to do good to them, but they must obey His commands.  Another reason they should not fear and obey Godís commands is His promise to do good to His people.

A third promise of the Lord is that He will turn their fasts into feasting.  Zechariah finally answers the question about fasting in 8:18-19.  Look at those verses with me.  The Lord is going to transform these fasts, these times of mourning over Israelís consequences, to seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.  They will not forget what happened.  No, but they will learn from the mistakes of the former generations and they will move forward in obedience.  They will again rejoice at the Lordís gracious favor toward His people.  The promise of the future feasts is another reason for them to fear not and obey.

Finally, the Lord promises to draw in the nations.  We have seen this promise already in Haggai and Zechariah, but look what is said in 8:20-23.  The nations will be brought in to Zion to worship the true God.  They will flock to Godís people saying: we have heard that God is with you.  This promise is also meant to drive out their fear and encourage their obedience.

In answering the question about fasting, God gives us some important warnings about our devotion to Him.  If I could simply the message found in Zechariah 7-8, I would say that we are to learn from the mistakes of the past and hold on to the promises of the future so that we can obey in the present.  God keeps telling this generation to remember what happened to the former generation.  The prophets want them to learn from their mistakes so that they will not make them again.  Thus, an incentive for present obedience is remembering past mistakes.  Likewise, in this passage, God gives the people several promises about the future.  He will be with them.  He will do good to them.  He will turn their fasting into feasting.  And He will draw in the nations to worship Him.  All of these future promises are incentives for present obedience.  They are not to fear, they are not to give up building the Temple, they are not to treat others with injustice.  Thus, past mistakes and future promises are incentives for present obedience.

The same is true for us.  If you are not a believer, then I encourage you to consider what happened to those who did not obey the Lord.  I encourage you to consider the promises of what will happen to all of those who die outside of Christ, namely they will spend eternity in Hell.  Let these truths be incentives for you to turn from your sins and trust in Christ.  Likewise, if you are a believer in Christ, then I challenge you to learn from past mistakes.  Learn from the history of Israel.  Learn from the history of the Church.  Learn from your own personal history.  Let that encourage you to present obedience.  Likewise, hold fast to the promises that God has given His people.  One Day we will dwell with Him forever.  One Day He will turn all fasting into glorious feasting.  One Day He will draw men from every tongue, tribe, and nation to worship around His throne.  May these promises for the future motivate your obedience in the present.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 06 April 2010 )

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