In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech, together with their men, to entreat the LORD by asking the priests of the house of the LORD Almighty and the prophets, ‘Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?’ Then the word of the LORD Almighty came to me: ‘Ask all the people of the land and the priests, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? Are these not the words the LORD proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?”’ And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”’ But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry. ‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land was left so desolate behind them that no-one could come or go. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’
The visions that came to Zechariah all ended. Two years went by and this was the night of December 7, 518 B.C. The work on the Temple was going ahead well; there were no more interruptions; their enemies in nearby tribes were leaving them alone, and within two years the Temple would be completed. They were days of peace and growing prosperity. We can identify with all of that. This is a blessed and united time for our congregation.
Two men and their retainers came to Jerusalem from Bethel which was twelve miles to the north (so the people of God were expanding out from Jerusalem). A question had been raised in the church there about fasting. They had been seventy years in Babylon, prisoners of war and slaves. They longed to return to their home country and to rebuild Jerusalem. They prayed much about this and they also called for days of fasting. In other words, that they all should set aside a time free for the preparation and eating of meals and clearing up subsequently. They would go without food to concentrate on bringing to God this terrible state of affairs and show to him their earnestness. You know what had happened, how pagans had defeated them, killed their king, destroyed the holy city and Temple, and taken the whole nation into captivity 500 miles away due east where they had lived, now, for decades in slavery. “Lord have mercy on us! End our captivity!” You remember the sentiments of Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Persians asked them to sing some of their songs. They replied, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” So one response was to call for days of prayer and fasting. There were a number of these; on the 17th of May, the date the Temple had been demolished, they fasted. On the 9th of April the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem, they fasted. July was a special month for fasting because in that month Gedaliah, the governor of Jerusalem, had been assassinated. On 10th of October, the date Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem, again they fasted.
This they had done for almost eighty years, but now the situation was very different. God had heard their prayers. Their captivity had come to an end. The new emperor of Babylon, Cyrus, had reversed the policy of bringing entire defeated nations to live in Babylonian slavery. He permitted them to return home. They had been home for ten or so years. The city was constantly being rebuilt. The Temple was almost completed. The people of God were spreading out into the surrounding areas. The question was should they continue their fasts? Fasting was a sacrifice and an effort. It was a sign of mourning, but they were experiencing blessing. Fasting was a time when the children learned from their parents and scribes something of their history. They used the fasts to nail the events of a hundred years earlier on the minds of the children. But now in times of prosperity couldn’t they teach them without fasting? There was no longer the sense of urgency that they’d had back in Babylon when the decision to fast had started.
So it happened to be in the town of Bethel that matters came to a head. There was a vocal group that raised the issue. They thought it time to stop continuing this tradition, while there were others who were alarmed at the proposal that these solemn days would be terminated. So they sent a couple of leading men, Sharezer and Regem-Melech, to go to Jerusalem and ask God in his very home, that is, in the Temple, whether he wanted this fasting to continue? They did this by bringing this question to the priests and waiting for an answer, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” (v.3). Should this tradition which our fathers started be maintained?
- HOW DID GOD ANSWER THEIR QUESTION?
God took the question seriously because it was a sincere and important question. He answered it not through the priests but through the prophet Zechariah. It was a direct revelation from heaven, and God answered their question by asking a question himself.
i] God probed their motive in fasting. He said to Zechariah, “‘Ask all the people of the land and the priests, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” (vv.5&6). What an answer! They thought they would have some commendation from God. They expected one of two answers from God, either he would say, “Please continue to fast,” or he’d say, “It’s time for your fasting to end.” God said neither. He probed them as to the motivation of their fastings all those years. “Why have you been fasting for almost eighty years? And why did you stop the fasting when the fast-day ended and then you feasted? Why? What was the purpose of all this? Did you do any of that really and truly just for me, or was it rather for yourselves?” That was not the answer they expected. After eight decades, and two generations of people doing religious things, many had begun to take for granted that this is what should be done, that keeping a fast day was true religion. This is what God required.
How often in the Scriptures did God require a fast? Just one day a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev.16:29). That was the day that pointed forward to the coming of Christ and his sacrifice and his entering into heaven with his own blood taking all his people who were on his heart with him so that their status would be seated in the heavenlies in him. For 364 days a year there was no divine requirement that the nation fasted. There could certainly be solemn days of national concern. They might be threatened with invasion. There could be no prophets in the land. A good king was dying. A drought had occurred for a third consecutive year. There was a plague which was spreading rapidly. Then the leaders of the people might call for a solemn assembly and urge the people to fast and pray. This was focused fasting: “God have mercy on us because of this particular calamity.” Some Christians are talking like that this month because of the succession of storms and flooding hitting the British Isles. But what had actually happened was that fasting became formalised and set in stone as an occasion four times in a year when everyone was required to fast. Not now the precious weekly Sabbath, an ordinance of God, when the people should be bringing the cause of the Messiah, and their longing to return home from Babylon, before God, but now these extra fast days, given a very special importance, and the people bound to keep them.
Were they in fact doing this so scrupulously for themselves? Ostensibly the fasting was initiated with a focus on God, but in fact could the fundamental reason for it now be centred on themselves! Had it become something like not eating chocolate for the period of Lent? Or whatever little indulgence you have, going to the pictures, watching the soaps, that you give that up for a whole month . . . not hard is it and a feeling of achievement comes on you? Or that you will eat no food for a month while it is daylight, but then in the evenings you will have a meal . . . not hard is it, especially if it makes you feel more religious. Or that you go on a pilgrimage to Mecca or Lourdes or Walsingham . . . not hard and a bit of an adventure, and meeting new people, and there is a nice camaraderie, and you feel closer to God having done it. Not hard! Or deciding never to eat pork or bacon or sausages or ham sandwiches . . . not hard is it, and you believe that you are abstaining for God. God sees you giving up things and God applauds you, “Great,” they thought God approved; “that’s what real religion is all about” . . . But does God really approve ‘religion’? Why were they, and why are you doing them?
Remember the Pharisees of Jesus’ day contemptuous of his disciples that they did not go through a cleansing ceremony every single meal time, washing their hands up to their elbows and then allowing their arms to dry in the wind. If Jesus of Nazareth were a bona fide rabbi he would teach his disciples ethical fundamentals like that, they asserted. But had God asked for that ritual? You remember Jesus probing the Pharisees about things they were failing to do that were clearly taught in the Bible – “the command of God” – that’s it, if God has commanded something it binds our consciences to do it, but if he has not commanded it then our consciences are free from men’s traditions. Luther said at his trial at Worms that he was free from obeying all the decrees and encyclicals of men, because men have erred, and that his conscience was bound to the word of God alone. “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!” So this is what Jesus asked them, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,” he is not to “honour his father” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!’” (Matt. 15:3-7). The Pharisees wrote a fat rule book of religious traditions, and soon they gripped the whole movement, and then doing the rules became the outstanding mark of a lifestyle pleasing to God and God’s blessing was on you. That is what always happens to men’s traditions, that they are elevated up and up and up, and the word of God comes down and down. The Sabbath went down and fast days went up. The Bible goes down and the Book of Mormon goes up. Roman sacred traditions go up and the Scriptures come down. Think of tongues speaking in certain circles. What does the Bible say about it? It says that in the early church it was one of those gifts that God gave to some people but not to everyone. It is very clear isn’t it? I am thinking about First Corinthians 12:29-31. “Are all apostles?” The answer is No. “Are all prophets?” Again, no. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. Do all have gifts of healing? No. Do all speak in tongues? No. Do all interpret? No. But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” (I Cor. 12:29-31). Not all were given the gift of tongues. And so it could not possibly have been the mark of a first century Christian that he had the Holy Spirit, because it is clear that God himself withheld that revelatory gift from many who were real Spirit-filled men and women. So what is this human tradition that has come into some of the professing churches that demands that everybody speak in tongues as a mark of being baptised with the Spirit? It is a theory of men and women. It is not what God says.
Let’s be very careful that we don’t elevate religious traditions and give them a great significance in our midst thinking that if we do such things God is really with us and blessing us. Did a man, a bishop, put his hands on your head and say to you, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? Are your hopes of being a new creature based on that? But that is a tradition of man isn’t it? Is there anywhere in the Scriptures where men or women are commanded to do that or to submit to that? Every bishop does it and has done it for years, but is it right to do it? So here in our text when the men of Bethel inquired should they continue to fast, God says to them, “It is about time you started to check out why you ever began to fast. Why did you do it? Was it really for me, because I asked for it? I did ask for the weekly Sabbath to be maintained but not four fast days a year. Wasn’t it ultimately for yourselves that you fasted and then later you feasted, saying to one another, ‘Food tastes much better after a good fast.’ It was all done for your sake not for me.”
ii] God reminded them of what he had said in the Scriptures. “Are these not the words the LORD proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?” (v.7). God did what I am doing now, directing their attention to the Word of God, telling them that he had often warned them in the Scriptures, through the former prophets, of the danger of multiplying practices and traditions and putting their confidence in them. Listen to Isaiah in the opening chapter of his prophecy seeing what his people were getting up to: “‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:11-15). The people felt so good about their worship. They devised New Moon festivals and choreographed them. They spent their money on them and had a thrill of satisfaction from attending them, but the Lord said, “What are they to me? . . . Who asked this of you?” I did not ask you to do this. I can’t bear them. I’ll hide my eyes from you. I won’t listen to you.” This is a great text for the Week of Prayer for Church Unity – another man-made festival.
Or again, when the people fasted they expected automatically God would rain down his blessings on them. They thought of it as a merit or a divine indulgence, and then, when there was no change they were plaintive and self-pitying. Again it is Isaiah who writes about this in chapter 58, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet [God says] on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isa. 58:3-5). They had notional religion, but true religion is more than notion.
I will give you the words of one more prophet, Amos, so that you will know that this is not some minor grumble but a dominant theme of the prophets to the people of God in their man-made worship. This is God himself speaking; “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos 5:21-23). The idea is everywhere today that as long as people are sincere in what they think they are bringing to God or what they feel is a fun way of worshipping him then that is fine also with Jehovah the Ancient of Days. But in Zechariah and Amos and Isaiah we see that that is not the case. There is some worship about which God says, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts.” Then let us examine ourselves. If there are a faithful half a dozen people meeting in a little room, that doesn’t mean that a small number has to be acceptable to God. Or the fact that there are a thousand men and women raising the roof that also does not mean that a large crowd can’t be wrong. Sincerity is not enough. Size is not enough. There was the sincerity and size of the vast numbers that attended a service at the shrine of Moloch where a child would be sacrificed. Numbers, enjoyment, sincerity are all hopelessly inadequate criteria for what pleases the Lord. What has God required from us? One person says, ‘I like Celtic worship with candles and Taize chanting.’ Another likes Cranmer’s English in the Book of Common Prayer. Another likes metrical psalms. Another likes contemporary worship with drums and worship leaders. Another likes ‘traditional worship.’ Many church goers are simply consumers with different tastes, but our likes and dislikes fall into insignificance compared to the matter of what gives pleasure to God. What has God prescribed for New Covenant worship? What ingredients does he insist when his people gather to worship him? That is not a matter of what we like. It is a matter of searching the New Testament to discover the divine demands and then obeying God. They would include the following – I will list them to you – that on the Lord’s Day there would be prayer, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the reading and the preaching of the word, there would be a taking of an offering of money for the spread of the Kingdom, there would be the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. None of those elements is negotiable, but the combination and time and length would be very variable. But there is another utterly crucial requirement for us to be acceptable to God when we worship in his presence.
- OUR WORSHIP IS MADE CREDIBLE BY GODLY LIVING.
I think of the famous scene of Christmas Day in Belsen, and the S.S. Guards and their families gathering in a building near the gas chambers and the incinerators and the sound from that building is of their singing ‘Holy Night’ and other carols and hearing the readings of the birth of Christ. The sound drifted across the concentration camp where hundreds of thousands were waiting to be gassed and their bodies consumed in the flames under the supervision of these very worshippers. Was their worship acceptable to God as pure and faultless? What does James tell us? “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Ja. 1:27). James warns his Christian readers again, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (Ja. 2:13). Again James says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Ja. 2:15-17). Do you understand? God does not ignore the six days of the week when we’re not together, or the hours on the Sunday when we are at home or doing other things. God doesn’t tell us that the only thing that matters to him is correct ritual on a Sunday – a ritual that incidentally we can also enjoy. He says that it is absolutely important to him that the sacrifice of prayer and praise we bring to him grows out of an entire life that is lived to his glory.
So here God is presented with a request from the believers in bethel, “Should there be a continuance or a cessation of the days of fasting?” God responds by asking how they are behaving on the other 360 days of the year. He tells them what they should be doing; “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (vv.8-10). So, how has it been with you this past week? Have you been patient and loving, forgiving and kind, helpful and sweet to your family and acquaintances? Do those who work under you thank God for such a boss as you are? Are there lonely people and needy people who thank God for your thoughtfulness and generosity? Is one of your favourite verses in Scripture, “Freely you have received, freely give”? Are you a person of complete integrity and so administer true justice when there are awkward tensions in the family or at work? Are you compassionate to the weak and weary and difficult? Are you loving your enemies? Do you turn the other cheek? Do you overcome evil with good? Can you imagine yourself saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do?” Do you keep your heart? Isn’t this such a convicting word in verse ten – “In your hearts do not think evil of each other.” He is not speaking now of the wickedness of doing evil – “Do not think evil of each other.”
You understand the link between Christ-like living and the sort of worship that glorifies and pleases the same Christ. You cannot live like a devil and worship like an angel. You cannot talk the talk on Sundays at church without walking the walk from Mondays to Saturdays. You see how we are being probed here? We are simply asking a question about certain aspects of worship and God tells us that what we do on certain days is intimately linked to how we live on the other days of the year. People speak of ‘praying in the Spirit’ and ‘worshipping in the Spirit’ but the Bible also speaks of walking in the Spirit day by day, and that walk is not defined in terms of ecstasy and tongues but in terms of the most stringent ethics, the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, that that is when our worship really gives glory to God and is the most fragrant of offerings to him.
- ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP REQUIRES THE CHEERFUL OBEDIENCE OF THE WORSHIPPERS.
Christians invite people to church, and the Christians who invite them want two things, that the preaching be simple and relevant and brief, and then this, that the music be contemporary. Then they believe some of the invited people will return and become a regular part of the congregation. I can appreciate that, just as long as there is no compromise on what they are to believe if they become Christians and how they are to live. God has gone to great pains to instruct us in who his Son is, how he has redeemed us, what we must do to inherit eternal life, how we are to behave if we are in Christ Jesus and he is in us. Every Christian in the New Testament is called a ‘saint.’ He is set apart from how the unbelieving world behaves, to live ever, only, all for Jesus Christ. So often you find the Lord Jesus telling people to count the cost of following him, and saying that those who suffer persecution from being his disciples are blessed men and women. No cross . . . no crown. No pain . . . no gain.
So God sent his prophets to the Old Testament people of God and they preached God’s law and many other words to the Jews. What happened? God tells us; “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets” (vv.11&12). Was it the word of God they heard, or the theories of men? It was the Word of God. Did it come in a boring lecture? No. The word came by God’s “Spirit through the earlier prophets.” So here was Spirit-filled preaching which is always the fuel for a Spirit-filled response in fervent, joyful thanksgiving and praise. But not here. Listen to this five fold rejection by the Jews in verse 11: One: they refused to pay attention – “we just won’t listen.” Two: stubbornly they turned their backs; a prophet like Isaiah was preaching with all his poetry and passion and pathos and all his congregation showed their disapproval by turning their backs on the pulpit. Three: they stopped up their ears. They thrust their fingers into their ears because although they couldn’t see Isaiah (as they had turned their backs on him) they could still hear his earnest preaching. So they stopped up their ears. Four: they made their hearts as hard as flint, so that though Isaiah preached to them about the suffering servant of God – “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all . . . with his stripes we are healed . . . he was stricken, smitten of God and afflicted . . .” but they shed no tears for what their sins had done to Christ. No. They made their hearts as hard as flint. Five: they would not listen. “Thanks, but no thanks.” They walked away; they were not going to hear such teaching as that. A five-fold rejection of the message was the result. Do you think that a person who responds like that and then proceeds to fast a few days in the year is going to be acceptable to God? So what happened?
4. GOD UTTERLY REJECTED THEM MAKING THE LAND A DESOLATION
The conclusion is sad and fearful: “So the Lord Almighty was very angry” (v.12). The Lord Jesus said that Old Testament Scriptures could not be broken. The heavens and the earth would pass away before these words will pass away. The Lord Jesus himself was very angry and he did not sin; he made a whip and drove out the money-changers from his Father’s house. He disdained the Pharisees as white-washed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. The Lord who drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden, and judged the world at the time of Noah, and condemned his own sinless Son as he made him the sin-bearing Substitute, sparing him not, is a God who is angry with all that is cruel and hurtful and degrading and demeaning. Thank God there is mercy for all who turn and entrust themselves to him and plead the merit of Jesus Christ. Zechariah tells us that God saw their five-fold disdain of him and his wise counsels and he was very angry. Are you dealing with an angry God now and will do so in the tremendous day? Why should you? Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Here is the answer to your guilt. Here is the divine provision for mercy. Through his Son’s sacrifice God can be just and yet justify all who repent of their sins and trust in him. His anger was focused upon the Son when he took our blame and shame and his mercy was shown to us who have been de-sinned.
You see the alternative for the rest of your lives and for eternity? “‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the LORD Almighty” (v.13). The Lord is calling now and has been calling some of you for a long time: “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” That is the call of God to you today, personally and freely offering you rest. The warrant you have to believe that when you come to him this blessing of forgiveness and life will be yours is his call. Come! he says, Turn! Why will you die? God commands all men everywhere to repent. But alas some of you refuse to listen when he calls. What does God say? Face the possibility that one day you will call desperately and he won’t listen to you. It happened to a godless rich man who died and went to hell, and there he called to God didn’t he? We are told that he said, “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (Lk. 16:24). God would not listen. “‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the LORD Almighty” (v.13). You know children how Mummy calls us and says that the food is on the table, come and sit down, but you are playing, or watching TV and you don’t listen. Doesn’t that hurt Mummy and make her cross? What if one day you call for Mummy and she’s walked out? You call, louder and louder, you go upstairs and outside but she’s gone. She is not listening to you because she is exasperated with you not listening to her. Aren’t you glad that your Mummy is so patient and kind and loving? But do not provoke her by disobedience. The children of Israel provoked God by refusing to obey him and he stopped answering them when they cried to him.
We are told to seek the Lord while he may be found and call upon him while he is near. He is near today. He is with us today. He is speaking and calling today. Harden not your hearts! You see the judgment that came upon these hard-hearted people? It is set out before us in the last verse of the chapter: “I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land was left so desolate behind them that no-one could come or go. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate” (v.14). Judgment came upon them in this world. I want to tell you that life with Jesus Christ is like living in a pleasant land, but life without Christ is like living in a wilderness. What is your future going to be a pleasant land with Jesus or a wilderness without him?
9th February 2014 GEOFF THOMAS