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—seventy years in all—the Jewish people had been observing a series of fasts in memory of all that had happened to them. But now they were back, and the temple was half built, so they wondered if they should still keep fasting?
What God had to say in response was unexpected. 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.
Second Point—True Righteousness
Instead of spending a lot of energy on religious rituals and ceremonies, the Lord wanted God’s people to put their love into action.
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts:
—Render true judgments,
—show kindness and mercy to one another.Zechariah 7:9 (NRSV)
True righteousness was being kind, true compassion meant no judging, no grudges, no criticism, no tearing down the person one is unhappy with, no just pretending to be all forgiving and nice, but rather actually being kind-hearted, offering genuine mercy from a heart of compassion, and being both truthful and just in judgment. Which would require humility and a habit of fairmindedness.
Truly caring people remember their own neediness, truly compassionate people remember their own sinfulness and need for forgiveness.
Let integrity be our rule, privately and publicly. The practice of integrity in all things, in even the littlest things, will help us to have integrity before the Lord when something really big happens.
Return to God’s Law
Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.Zechariah 7:10 (NRSV)
God talks about this a lot, taking care of people, doing for people, and especially for those people who are alone in the world. No harboring resentment against your sister, or your brother, no devising evil as my translation puts it, but also no harboring of bitterness or simmering anger.
Often, when you and I think about our own story, we see ourselves as victims of evil and agents of good. And surely this is at least sometimes true! No child has ever grown up in a completely perfect home, because every parent ever, beginning with Adam and Eve, has been imperfect.
Every relationship carries some level of dysfunction in it, because every person in every relationship is . . . imperfect.
So, you and I have undoubtedly been victims of evil perpetrated upon us by no choice and no fault of our own. That harm can be traumatic and terribly damaging. As adults, most of us need at least a little help in processing the events of our growing up lives, so that we can move forward with a healthier world view, and self-assessment, as well as healthier ways of being in relationship with others (and ourselves).
And undoubtedly we have all also done at least some good.
But, how often have you and I elided over those times when we have been the perpetrators? Or when we had a chance to do or say something good and chose not to? When anger, or a sense of jealousy, or envy, or feeling slighted or misused, or abused, we actually did (even if, perhaps, only in our hearts) devised evil, or harbored bitterness?
The Heart of God’s Law
The tendency when thinking about God’s Law is to think of it as a list of do’s and do nots that concern our outward actions. But in truth, the Lord has always, always, always been concerned about the hearts of God’s people above all else.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me.
So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the Lord.Exodus 23:9, 25:2, 28:29 (NRSV)
Even circumcision, though it was to be manifested in a physical way, was to act as a reminder of the inner circumcision God always intended.
Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.
Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6 (NRSV)
Rejection of God’s Law
But, the Lord lamented, God’s people did not listen to the word of the Lord.
But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts.Zechariah 7:11-12 (NRSV)
It was a reminder to the people of how their forebears had responded to God’s call to true righteousness and integrity. Instead, the people had given their compassionate and longsuffering God their cold shoulder and a deaf ear. They had made their hearts diamond-hard so God’s word would not penetrate.
As the people knew, and as their fasting and mourning had kept constantly at the forefront of their hearts and minds, great wrath had come from the Lord of hosts.
Response of God to the People’s Rejection
Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts,Zechariah 7:13 (NRSV)
I had to read that verse twice. God stopped answering their prayer because -they- refused to answer God’s call.
. . . and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate.Zechariah 7:14 (NRSV)
So God’s judgement came, and the desolation of Judah was a metaphor for the desolation of their lives, due to their unrepentant sin. For they had not only been victims of evil and agents of good. They had turned their backs on God right way. They had replaced compassion with hard-heartedness, right judgment with self-serving judgment, generosity with selfishness and self-promotion. They had become perpetrators of evil and had made the helpless, the alone, the disadvantaged and foreigner among them their victims.
Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would exhort the Galatian believers,
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.
—If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh;
—but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.Galatians 6:7-10 (NRSV)
God desired a profound mindset change in the people who had come to Zechariah with their question about fasting.
Their current mindset was all about outward performance, conforming to a certain standard for the purpose of being rewarded in some way. What that first mindset leaves out is the heart, what is happening in the heart.
But the profound mindset change God wanted would only happen when the hearts of God’s people were flooded with love for the Lord. They might still do all the same things, maybe even perform the same rituals, but it would not be simply going through the motions, it would be vibrantly alive because of their changed hearts.
[The Ten Commandments | George Bannister, https://www.flickr.com/photos/drgbb/26690973961, flickr (CC BY 2.0)]