In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo: ‘The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Return to me,” declares the LORD Almighty, “and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.” But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?’ Then they repented and said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’
The book of the prophet Zechariah is easy to find in the Old Testament. It is the penultimate book. The final book in the Old Testament is Malachi and Zechariah comes just before it. It is a very relevant and helpful book to where we are as a congregation today, but one of the reasons I intend to preach from it for a few months is because I have been preaching on Sunday mornings for years exclusively from the New Testament, the gospel of Luke, and I feel that I have neglected the Old Testament.
Now please remember that the words ‘Old Testament’ are never used by Jesus or his apostles to describe a book in Scripture. If anyone had gone to Peter at the conclusion of his Pentecost sermon and asked, ‘Why did you keep quoting from the Old Testament?’ then the response would have been a look of blank incomprehension on the apostle’s face. Further attempts to explain your question would result in the penny dropping and Peter would have said to you, ‘Ah, I see . . . why was I quoting from the Scriptures?’
Nothing would do more to transform our attitude to the Bible or open up to us more fruitful avenues of reading and preaching than to forget about that rigid and unhelpful division of the Bible into ‘Old’ and ‘New.’ We need to learn from Jesus and the apostles about the one, single book of divine truth graciously given to us, for, without a doubt, that’s how the Scripture itself would have us think of the Bible. The Lord Jesus is central to the whole, the divine risen Christ setting the seal of his authority on this book as the sole and essential means of understanding him and his work, and of preaching him to the world.
There’s a very interesting verse in which Paul brackets as ‘Scripture’ both the words of Jesus and also the writings of Moses in a quotation from Deuteronomy. In other words Paul puts a ‘New Testament’ passage on a par with the earlier inspired Word of God. For Paul they are both the written word of God. You will find that reference in his first letter to Timothy and chapter five and verse 18: “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.” God said this through Moses, and God said that through his Son Jesus. Both sentences have all the authority behind them of the one true and living God.
So here we are in September 2013 in Aberystwyth and the word of the Lord is coming to us through Zechariah the prophet because in the year 520 B.C., that is 2533 years ago last month, the eight month of that year in which Emperor Darius was the most powerful man in the world, then “the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo” (v.1). The word came in time and space history, not in Narnia or in the territory ruled over by the ‘Lord of the rings’ but on this planet in its history. It came to a man whose father was named Berekiah and whose grandfather was Iddo. What was the word from our God that came to Zechariah.
- THE LORD WAS ANGRY WITH THE PROPHET’S FOREFATHERS.
That was the word that came from the Creator of the universe to Zechariah, and do we find in the New Testament when the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us that there were things that men and women did that made Jehovah Jesus angry? Was he angry with Satan? Yes. Was he angry with Peter when that apostle tried to dissuade him from going to the cross? Did Jesus say to Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan?” Peter was being a tool of the devil in his opposition to Christ crucified. Was he angry with the Pharisees? Did gentle Jesus say to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:25-28). What religious hypocrites! They shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. They themselves didn’t bother to enter but they prevented those entering who wanted to. Is it right to be angry at religious hypocrisy, at men who preach the old virtues but practice the old vices? It is right to be angry at men who in the name of religion become suicide bombers and kill strangers and plunge families into grievous loss? Of course it is. You conscience tell you to be indignant at such men. It is not a sin to be angry at cruelty and murder and abuse. You’d be a wretch to be indifferent to such things, and smile indulgently at such people saying, “Some people are hypocrites and some people are murderers and who am I to judge?” Be like your Creator! Be like the righteous Lord Jesus Christ.
Or again think of this incident in the life of our Lord recorded in John chapter 2 beginning with verse 13: “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (Jn.2:13-16). How did he do that? Was there a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth? Was it with a little feminine pat that he gently pushed them to the exit? I believe not. Here is the wrath of the Lamb of God to crooks who had taken over his Father’s home and made it a place where they could rip off people coming to make sacrifice for the guilt of their sins. So in the New Testament, in the life of Jehovah Jesus, you meet the same Lord who could become very angry with human depravity as the Lord who spoke to Zechariah.
- WHY THE LORD WAS VERY ANGRY WITH HIS FORFATHERS?
Let me give you four illustrations of what caused God to be angry:
i] When the people made and worshipped an idol they’d made in the shape of a cow made of gold. It is the incident that is found in Exodus 32 when God saw what was happening and he spoke to Moses on top of Mount Sinai and he said to him, “‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” ‘I have seen these people,’ the LORD said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’”(Ex. 32:7-11). Think of it, the Lord who so persistently acted to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, to take them into a land flowing with milk and honey, a Lord who provided them with food and water and protection, and yet the people at the first bout of difficulty turned way from him and took out their gold ear-rings to be melted down and watched their goldsmiths make a model of a cow. Then they turned their backs on the living God and fell down and worshipped the idol. It would be like your father kicking your beloved mother out of the house and worshipping a robot who cooked and cleaned and washed for him – would you be angry with him? But here in Exodus the idol did absolutely nothing but reflect the light of the sun. God says, “I was very angry with your forefathers,” and we can understand why.
ii] When the best king the people ever had took a man’s wife into his bed and had her husband killed. I am talking of David becoming a peeping Tom. It was not that he was drawn to Bathsheba as they worked and worshipped together and he admired her intelligence and spirituality and found her a very attractive woman. No. He saw her having a bath and he lusted for her body. Here is pornographic David. Then he sends for her and seduces her using his power as the greatest man in the nation. Here is abusive David. Then she gets pregnant and he tries to cover his tracks by summoning Uriah her husband home from the war, but Uriah is such a man of integrity he feels he cannot take privileges which his fellow officers did not have. Here is deceiving David. And so the king arranged for him to be abandoned in a skirmish and be killed by the enemy. Here is murderous David. Here is the best king Israel ever had.
I have quoted to you the Latin proverb corruptio optimi pessima, in other words, “the corruption of the best is the worst.” David was the best. He was intelligent, and good looking. He was brave and forgiving to Saul who tried to kill him. He was a wise ruler, the anointed of God, and above all a spiritually minded man. Did any in the nation love God as much as he did? Yet he behaved like this! He took a man’s wife and had the man killed! Did he have an unhappy marriage? What could be his excuse for doing what he did? ‘What the heart wants the heart wants’? David already had seven wives, Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah. He also had concubines.The corruption of the best is the worst. So how did it work out for David and Bathsheba? Did he finally after seven attempts find true love in Bathsheba? Let’s turn to those painful words with which the first book of Kings opens for an answer; “When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, ‘Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.’ Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no intimate relations with her” (I Kings 1:1-4). Who’d have dreamed the affair with Bathsheba would have ended like this? In all the infatuation of their first passion they didn’t think so; “This is for ever,” they whispered to one another. His six wives weren’t close to him, he had told her, but here at last was true love, but when he got old not one wife would share his bed. They had to search the land for one suitable woman to keep him warm and be his companion.
Who needs to heed this incident? All who love Psalm 23, which this man wrote; all who think they stand; the strongest Christians in this congregation need to fear the corrupting power of infatuation. What did the family of Uriah think, the parents who had given their brave son to fight for his country? Were they angry when they learned what had been done? Were they right to be angry? Is any other response acceptable? Is a shrug of indifference acceptable? Here is the best of the kings of Israel and he acted like the worst of men. Then how did the other kings behave? If the best was a rotter . . . So you see how God was very angry with the forefathers of Zechariah. The corruption of the nation was not just amongst the shepherds and farmers and towns-people; it was locked into the very top ranks of society. Why was the Lord very angry with the people?
iii] When the wisest king Israel ever had took whatever women he wanted big time. I am referring to Mr. Cruel Contradiction himself, David’s son, Solomon, so wise and yet so foolish. I am referring to the record in I Kings 11:1-9 “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter – Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.” Solomon was worse than David. Think of it, every fortnight or so in his early life he got married. The bridal-ware business was never more profitable in Jerusalem than during Solomon’s reign. God condescends to our human terminology by referring to Solomon’s hundreds of relationships as relationships of ‘love’ because that is how the world describes it, making love. It was sheer lust in this abusive and wise king – a man who had received a vision of the Lord in his glory twice. Visions won’t keep you. Again . . .
iv] When a king called Manasseh burned his own son to death. I Kings 21 and verses 2 through 6, “He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshipped them. He built altars in the temple of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, ‘In Jerusalem I will put my Name.’ In both courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practised sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” The media this past week has been full of two events, one in Washington D.C. where a man took a gun and shot dead ten people he did not know. Were their families angry? Were they right to be very angry with him for doing that? Wouldn’t indifference and a mere shrug be a reprehensible response? Yes it would be fearfully reprehensible. Then there was also a report of the way a small boy had been let down by everyone so that his parents were allowed to slowly kill him with constant violence. Should we say, “Well, that is the way some people act”? No. God is not indifferent to our pain. He is angry with those who cause it. This is the God you are going to answer to. Have you hurt people? Are there people you think of today and wonder where they are and how they have got on in life and do you have regrets for the way you treated them? Do you need forgiveness for the way you have acted? Have you found pardon for what you did wrong? There is mercy, that God may be feared.
- WHAT DID GOD SAY TO THIS NATION?
These are his precise words that he told Zechariah to give to the people and so to us today: “‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’ says the Lord Almighty” (v.3). These are the exact words of the only God there is, the one who had been so angry with the people because of their sin. You see the repetition of the phrase, ‘decares the Lord Almighty . . . says the Lord Almighty.’ In other words, you be sure that you know that these are not man’s words. They are not Zechariah’s words. They are not the words of the preacher today. God is saying this to these corrupt and sinful people. “Return to me and I will return to you.” Not, ‘I am sending another flood on you for your depravity . . . I am going to put you all in hell.’ No. ‘If even you now turn in repentance from your sins and turn in trust to me, then I will come close to you in love and be your Saviour, and Teacher, and Shepherd, and King.’
What is this? This is the grace of God. We have looked at his righteousness and justice and his anger with man’s wicked actions, but now we discover that this same Lord is also a God of pity and mercy. Isn’t that incredible? We sing a hymn which says, “Oh how the grace of God amazes me.” We sing, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound.” We sing, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God should’st die for me.” Here are Christians and they are amazed at the grace of God. Today most Christians take grace for granted, “Of course. God’s grace is amazing . . . so what?” Let me show you how the divine grace is so amazing. Let me give you three examples of grace.
i] The parable of the labourers told by the Lord Jesus. It’s harvest time and the landowner goes to the farm gate and he hires a group of men to work for him that day, from eight o’clock to four o’clock for sixty pounds. He hires a few more at midday, and then at 3 o’clock a few layabouts say to one another, “Fancy an hour of work?” “O.K.” and then they get up and go and ask the boss if they can do some work for him. He adds them to his labourers and so for one hour they work at the harvest. Then at four o’clock they all clock off for the day and to each one he gives sixty pounds, the same wage whether they have worked eight hours or one. The layabouts get the same money as those who have put in a full day’s work. These men who worked all day in the sun complain, “It’s not fair that they get the same as us.” “But didn’t you agree to work eight hours for sixty pounds?” “Yes.” “Then take your money and go. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matt. 20:15). He was not being mean to those who had worked all day. It was a fair wage. He was being generous to those who had only worked one hour.
That is grace. The Gentiles had worshipped idols and followed the philosophies of men for centuries but when they trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation they went to the same glory that repentant Jews went to who had kept God’s commandments throughout their lives. The converted Jews had done nothing perfectly. All they had done needed cleansing and forgiveness even as everything the Gentiles had done needed mercy. Mercy alone takes us to glory. That is the grace of God.
There is the New York serial killer David Berkowitz (who was nicknamed Son of Sam) who shot dead six strangers and was convicted of their murders in 1977. In prison he came to understand the Jesus Christ had become the Lamb of God and that even the worst sinners may find complete forgiveness by Jesus’ sacrifice. He put his trust in our Lord and since then he has lived a changed life in prison. His website is full of his faith in the Saviour. He has changed his nickname now to Son of Hope. Some Christians can grumble; “He doesn’t deserve to go to heaven.” They even say, “He ought to fry in hell for what he did,” but then they show that they don’t understand God’s grace. They think it’s what they deserve for living a religious life, and so grace is not amazing to them. Think of it, that today a murderer, David Berkowitz, is seated in the heavenlies in Jesus Christ with all his sins forgiven, while people who have lived entirely proper lives but have never seen that they need to be pardoned and redeemed and adopted into the family of God are as lost as lost can be and that they are going to hell. That is God’s amazing grace.
ii] The parable of the prodigal son told by Jesus Christ. Two brothers, one behaving as badly as a son can behave, compelling his father to give him his inheritance and immediately leaving home and spending the lot on wine, women and song. The other boy stays at home and helps his father run the farm. Then, finally, friendless and famished, the younger son comes to himself and thinks of his father and the possibility of getting a job back on the old farm. He goes home to the most loving fatherly welcome that you can imagine, not digging ditches and shoveling dung while living in the servants’ quarters but to receive immediately all the insignia of sonship, and be restored to the home and all the privileges of being this landowner’s beloved son. The wretched boy is given exactly the same status as his older brother, the son who had stayed home and been as good as gold, working for his father faithfully year after year, whom the father had taken for granted. The proper older boy is unimpressed at his father’s grace to his wretched brother. He was thinking like many of you. We would never do that. We would say, “You can’t be too careful. Look what once he did. He could do it again. Put him on probation. Let him come back, but as a labourer, and then if he proves himself over the next ten years he can be given a few privileges once again.” It is nothing like that. The welcome is spontaneous and full hearted. The father’s love is utterly sincere. The status of sonship is his from the moment his father says, “Put the ring of sonship on his finger and the sandals of sonship on his feet.” That is grace. From now on he eats with his father and lives with his father and receives all the blessings of having this man as his loving father.
iii] The salvation by Jesus Christ of the dying thief. How would you imagine a man had once behaved if he confessed that being crucified was a fair punishment for his actions? You’d think that he must have been a very wicked man indeed and done the most unspeakable things. He got what he deserved. Zechariah’s congregation heard his preaching that God would turn to those who turned to him. We are told that they said, “The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do” (v.6). What men sow is what they also will reap. The dying thief had sown murder and cruelty and he reaped condemnation and crucifixion.
I am speaking, of course, of the criminal who was crucified alongside our Lord who turned to his companion, the other condemned criminal who had been shouting angrily at the Lord Jesus, “Don’t you fear God? We deserve what we are getting, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he called to Christ asking him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). He simply asked that in the whole administration of his eternal kingdom that Jesus wouldn’t forget him. He believed that Jesus was coming again, and that he was coming as a King, no longer as a condemned, humiliated, mocked man, and that he would know all those who had said a word of trust and repentance to him and also remember those who had hardened their hearts against him. Here was the omniscient king of the universe. What new faith this wicked man had in Christ, at the eleventh hour! If only he had seen this years earlier!
What did Jesus say? Did he tell him that he must first go to purgatory for a thousand years and have all his guilt and shame purged out of him and that Jesus would encourage masses and prayers for his soul to be said for him which would shorten his time in that place of purgation? No, he did not. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is, heaven, being where Jesus was. After his years of terrible evils he simply came to see his own wickedness and shame and called on King Jesus to show pity to him, and the answer was not, “I won’t forget you.” No. “You will this day be welcomed by me into Paradise. It all happened that day; he breakfasted in prison that morning; he hung with Jesus on the cross that noon and that night he was with Jesus in paradise – it all happened that day. He was condemned by man that morning; he was punished by man that midday but that night he was received into glory with Jesus . . . “that where I am there you will be also.” That is grace abounding to the chief of sinners, amazing grace, from the guttermost to the uttermost and all through the Lord Jesus’ great achievements.
That is what our Lord says here and throughout Zechariah, if you David, and Solomon, and Manasseh would turn to me from your evil ways and your evil practices, if you return to the Father’s house . . . if you ask the Lord to remember you . . . then he will return to you. He will not come as the outraged Lord. No! You have confessed your sins and sought his forgiveness. He will come running to you and throw his arms about you and own you as his son, and there will be joy among the angels of heaven that the lost child is found and the dead child lives.
He pleads that we will not hear all this and still do nothing. It’s possible! Many do. Many did at this time. “But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD” (v.4). And they are all simply statistics today of non-believers, and non-Christians, and the non-repentant and the non-children of God. They went on defying and ignoring the living God while they existed, but God asks, “Where are they now? Where are the holy men now? Who lives for ever?” None. It is appointed unto men once to die and after death the judgment. Though men and women run from those words all their lives those words always win. Those words of judgment overtook every generation before us (v.6).
But there were those favoured and blessed and saved men and women who turned to the Lord from their evil ways. They justified the ways of God. Whatever has happened to us then our father Adam and our own sins have brought it all upon us. Don’t you find it amazing that this day you should be hearing the message of grace from the Bible, that you are being told the true nature of God as a sin-hating God, and also a God of grace who pardons and forgives the worst of men even at the very end of their lives, that he clothes some with the righteousness of God and takes them to heaven at the end saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
Here are the themes of this book of the preaching of Zechariah, the holiness and justice of our sin-hating God and yet his marvelous grace to those who turn from their evil ways and evil practices. It is a wonderful thing to realise that you have an evil way. Cheer up, you are far worse than you think. You are blaming your problems on your intelligence or on your personality or on the bad influence of your family or bad company. Cheer up because you can do nothing about those things, but if you will take personal responsibility for how you are living, and what you have done and for your own evil ways and practices and turn from them and fall into the arms of Jesus then what the Lord says here through Zechariah he will do for you. That is why he brought you to read this command and promise from God, “Return to me – and I will return to you.” I can’t think of a more wonderful discovery today than of a father, his face beaming with love, running towards you, his arms outstretched to welcome you, determined that he will never let you go again, welcoming you home, to his family, to his fatherly love. “I will return to you.” He will return to you. Christians, martyrs, apostles, angels, all say yes he will! So return! Don’t delay. Return today. It’s the movement of your heart from unbelief to trusting in Jesus Christ and following him. It is receiving his grace because you know that Jesus lived for you and died for you. Return to your Father. Return to him.
22nd September 2013 GEOFF THOMAS