We have now finished examining the visions that Zechariah was blessed with, but we are not finished with the revelations of this Book; the prophet sees no more such signs as he had seen, but the Word of the Lord still came to him. In this chapter (which transpired two years after Zechariah beheld his visions in the first six chapters), we have a question of conscience proposed to the prophet by representatives of the people concerning fasting – whether or not they ought to continue their solemn fasts which they had religiously observed during the 70 years of their Babylonian captivity (verses 1-3). The answer to this question is given in this and the next chapter; and this answer was not given all at once, but by piece-meal.
The Jews, during their captivity, appear to have observed four fasts that darkened four months out of their year. That of the tenth month recalled the first enclosure of Jerusalem by the lines of the Babylonian soldiers; that of the fourth month commemorated the capture of the city in the reign of King Zedekiah; that of the fifth was in memory of the disaster which capped all, when the house of the Lord was set on fire; and that of the seventh remembered the murder of Gedaliah, which resulted in the dispersion of the remnant. The Jewish year was thus filled with sad retrospect, and the national life was perpetually oppressed with gloom; for it is clear that the observance of these days was a rigorous obligation (verses 4-6).
Upon their return from captivity, the Jews still observed these sorrowful fasts; but it seems to have struck some of the returned exiles that it was entirely inconsistent to continue wearing sackcloth and casting ashes on their heads when the Holy City was rapidly rising from the dust and regaining much of her former prosperity and beauty. It seemed to them that it was rather hypocritical to continue to display a grief which had long since been assuaged, and had even changed into great joy. Surely the confessions and lamentations, which were proper enough in Babylon, were out of place in the land of their forefathers! Therefore, they sent a deputation to the house of God, to consult the priests and prophets there for an answer to this question.
Zechariah gave four separate answers to this inquiry. Four times, “the word of the Lord” came to him. In the first of the four parts of his reply (verses 4-7), the prophet reminds the people that these fasts in question were of their own appointing. This suggested the inference that since they themselves – and not the Lord – had established them in the first place, they were at liberty to discontinue them whenever they chose to. He also suggests that it would have been far better for them if – instead of appointing fasts, which satisfied national sentiments – they had set themselves to ponder the words of the older prophets. This allusion to their inattention to the prophets shows that there was a total disregard of the Word of the Lord among them, despite all their pretended sanctity of fasting. Alas! How willing many persons are to substitute anything in the place of real Godliness! Fasting, sorrowful faces, sackcloth, and other such outward formalities and experiences are in the preference of all people by nature. Why? Because these are offerings to our own shrine (verses 5-6). But faith in Christ is such a self-emptying and self-loathing principle, that none except those who are taught by the Holy Spirit ever can or ever will be able to practice it. Unless real communion and fellowship with the Lord are the main objective of external observances such as fasting and wearing sackcloth, then surely they are so far from being acceptable in the eyes of God, that they actually become an offensive abomination before Him! If Jesus Christ does not give repentance to His people, then there can be no real repentance in their souls. And without real repentance in their souls, there can be no remission of their sins (Acts 5:31). If our acts of service and worship to the Lord are not exclusively done with an eye to the blood and righteousness of Christ, then they are nothing more than a mockery before the Lord (Isa. 65:5).
In the prophet’s second reply (verses 8-14), he tells the people that whether or not they decided to continue those fasts which they had imposed upon themselves, yet they ought to at least exemplify the spirit of true religion, which was of priceless importance! “Execute true judgment,” he says, “and show mercy and compassion every man to his brother; and oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart” (verses 9-10). These were exactly the same thing that God had required of their forefathers. Sadly, however, their fathers had refused to hear Him; and instead, they had hardened their hearts like a stone. That is why such calamities had befallen them. Those judgments upon Israel, which are here mentioned, were written to be a word of admonition and warning to Christians. The duties which are required of God’s people are not external ceremonies, such as keeping fasts and offering sacrifices; but rather, the doing of justice and loving mercy, which promote the public peace and well-being. It is sad indeed to read how the Jews of old filled their minds with prejudices against the Word of God. If sin is regarded in the heart, it will certainly spoil the success of prayer. However, let it be a comfort to all the Lord’s humble sons and daughters that He will always hear the cry of broken-hearted penitents! (Ps. 147:1-6)
Lord, save us from making our worship of You a mere formality of observing external ceremonies, and help us to worship You in spirit and in truth! Amen.
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