A Big Question
About two years after Zechariah’s night of visions, a delegation of people came from Bethel to ask him an important question. Since the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, the Jewish people in exile had been observing a series of fasts in memory of all that had happened to them.
Fasts of Mourning
In January everyone had fasted in memory of when Nebuchadnezzar had begun the siege of Jerusalem. [588 BC]
And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.2 Kings 25:1-2 (NRSV)
In July they had mourned the capture of their city.
On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.
Then a breach was made in the city wall; the king with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. They went in the direction of the Arabah.
But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho; all his army was scattered, deserting him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.2 Kings 25:3-7 (NRSV)
In August they had fasted in memory of Jerusalem being burned to the ground and the beautiful temple being destroyed. [586 BC]
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.
. . . The bronze pillars that were in the house of the Lord, as well as the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces, and carried the bronze to Babylon . . . What was made of gold the captain of the guard took away for the gold, and what was made of silver, for the silver.
The king of Babylon struck them [priests, city administrators, what was left of their army] down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah went into exile out of its land.2 Kings 25:8-21 (NRSV)
In October they grieved in remembrance of the assassination of Gedaliah (the Prophet Jeremiah’s friend), who had been appointed governor of Judah.
[The king of Babylon] appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan as governor over the people who remained in the land of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had left.
Now when all the captains of the forces and their men heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah as governor, they came with their men to Gedaliah at Mizpah . . . Gedaliah swore to them and their men, saying, “Do not be afraid because of the Chaldean officials; live in the land, serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you.”
But in the seventh month, Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, of the royal family, came with ten men; they struck down Gedaliah so that he died, along with the Judeans and Chaldeans who were with him at Mizpah.
Then all the people, high and low, and the captains of the forces set out and went to Egypt; for they were afraid of the Chaldeans.2 Kings 25:22-26 (NRSV)
God had never said they were to keep these fasts, only one fast was ever instituted in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that was for the Day of Atonement.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall
—deny yourselves and
—present the Lord’s offering by fire; and
—you shall do no work during that entire day;
for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God.Leviticus 23:26-28 (NRSV)
Still, often people would seek to draw closer to God and grieve over sin, as Queen Esther had done, through fasting and prayer. So it was that the Jewish people had kept all these fasts in the seventy years of their exile until they would be released to go back to their land.
But now they were back, and the temple was half built, so they wondered if they should still keep fasting?
Put yourself in their shoes. These were religious people, concerned with proper worship. They were expecting approval from Zechariah, and a simple yes or no answer. They were certainly not expecting what came next!
The Lord’s Word in Response
God’s answer had four points:
- God did not like their fasting because it was all empty ritual.
- God wanted the people to live lives of righteousness.
- God was now prepared to bless them and
- God would one day turn all their fasting into feasting.
First Point—Genuine Worship
Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me:
Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?
And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?
Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited?God, Zechariah 7:4-7 (NRSV)
Somehow, the original intent of drawing near to God through fasting had deteriorated into just a form of worship without any heart in it.
How often that happens!
Somewhere, deep inside, my original devotion devolves, and I begin to think—often not even aware of the shift—that if I just fast and say these special prayers, if I observe certain holy days, follow tradition, go through these motions, I can feel good about myself as a religious person, and God will be good to me, making me happy.
When the people were fasting or observing the feasts God had appointed, it was all for themselves, not for love of God.
Worship begins in the heart. When we start asking “do I have to?” or think “not again!” then we have lost the heart of worship. The Lord desired that God’s people fast from sin. It was not to God’s pleasure that the people had instituted so many fasts and occasions to mourn. It was for their own sake, to go far above and far beyond God’s call to a day of atonement once a year.
Yet God sorrowed even over their feast days, the very ones the Lord had given them to gather together in Jerusalem, to draw near to the Lord and eat at God’s table! Because just as they mourned and fasted for their own sake, so also they were feasting for themselves, not out of thanksgiving or joy in the Lord.
[The Chaldees Destroy the Brazen Sea, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 3/4 x 10 3/16 in. (14.6 x 25.9 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York | By James Tissot – http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/onlinecollection/object_collection.php?objectid=26578&artistlist=1&an=James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8860290%5D