Was It Really For Me That You Fasted
Key Verse 7:5
“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?’”
In the year 520 B.C. [that’s two years prior to the events of this chapter we are studying in Zechariah 7] God had sent the prophet Haggai to the priests at the temple with a question concerning a certain law. When something that’s ceremonially clean touches something that’s unclean, will it make it clean? And the answer of course is no, it will not. And when something that’s ceremonially unclean touches something that’s clean, will it make it unclean? And the answer is yes, of course it will. And the point of it all was that often holiness will not rub off on others, but corruption surely does and will. In other words, no holy activity in the temple can clean up the mess of sin people commit on the outside. Rather unless people are sincere before God about cleansing their sin through repentance and through the obedience which comes from faith, their sins and uncleanness will most likely rub off on others and contaminate the whole community. This was the people’s problem all along as the Lord addressed his people. We are reminded of this question which God brought to the priests through the prophet Haggai two years prior because in the passage we are looking at here [Zechariah 7] the people’s problem hadn’t changed much, although the Lord deals with it differently.
Look at verses 1-3. “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?’” These events are taking place two years after Zechariah received the series of visions that were shown to him by the Lord, and two years before the completion of the second temple; It was near the end of the year 518 B.C. These men, whoever they were, had come down from Bethel to speak to the priests in the temple in Jerusalem and they had a very interesting question— one that has to do with rituals or ceremonies. You might also consider that the question might well be about tradition too. Is a ritual or ceremony that we are practicing beneficial or of no benefit? Is it useful or is it useless? Is it still valid or has it become null? Is it right or is it wrong to continue practicing what we have been doing for a long time? And here’s where this question came from. These people began to fast even before their exile and captivity in Babylon and had continued to do so all throughout their captivity and exile. They cried their eyes out and bared their souls while they were in Babylon (Psalm 137:1-2) until it had become a practice, a ritual, a ceremony, and a religious function for them. Just for the record, it wasn’t even God who asked to do this. It was their own idea to put aside days of fasting and days of weeping during their captivity and exile, which they continued to do even after the captivity was over and they had returned to Israel. But here’s the thing. When they observed their lives, it seemed as if God was not blessing them. Well, they thought they were being blessed at first because things were going well for them— building houses and prospering here and there. But when they met up with some persecution and hardship and difficulties, and they were still fasting and weeping, they thought they weren’t being blessed any longer. Their question was a serious one. “Should we keep on fasting as we have done all these years?” Well, should they? Did God want them to continue the practice or not? What would solve their problem and bring about his blessing? Just tell us what to do!
That’s a very important question for us as well. Why? Because there’s always the danger of falling into formalism or ritualism even among those who least expect it. That is, there is always the danger of becoming comfortable in following a ritual or a ceremony, and confusing what is religious with what is supposed to be spiritual. When Christians allow themselves to become too comfortable following Christian liturgy, their hearts often stop beating for Christ and eventually they stop seeing Christ all together nor worshiping him. Then they have all together lost the way. When Christians argue about whether they should begin the service with a hymn or silent prayer, or end the service with a doxology or a worship song, they have lost the way, and something has gone terribly wrong with their sense of worship. Christ is no longer at the heart of their worship! He is no longer the heartbeat of their service! Not that rituals are wrong or having certain liturgy for service is wrong per se. It was God himself who gave the nation of Israel their religious service— their worship, and it was certainly ritualistic. But what was at the heart of it, is the question! So we come back to the question these people brought to the priests and the prophets at the temple. Is the ritual or ceremony right or wrong? Is it good for us or bad for us? That seems to be the gist of these people’s question. They seem to be saying: “We’ve been fasting and weeping all this time and now it all looks pretty moot [of little or no practical value] to us. It’s only a religious ceremony we’re performing after-all and it seems God isn’t blessing it. And quite frankly, it’s been a boring ordeal. Should we keep on doing it?”
So then, how will Zechariah answer them? Quite honestly, the Lord doesn’t say whether it’s right or wrong to fast. He doesn’t say whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s enough or not, whether they should quit or go on with it till the cows come home! However, the Lord does answer the question as surprisingly as he doesn’t answer it! And it looks like he answers it in three ways. We find the first answer in something like this: When the heart is right, then the ritual or ceremony is also right. In other words, it all depends on your heart— the condition of your hearts. Then we find the second answer also in something like this: When the heart is wrong, then the ceremony is also wrong. In other words, it all depends on your heart— on the condition of your hearts. And we find the third answer of course in chapter 8, but we will get there another time. For now, we need to focus on what he says in this chapter. Let’s look at how God answers them.
Read verses 4-7. “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?”’” Do you see what the Lord is asking of them in return? “When you went through your ritual or ceremony, were you really doing it for me? In other words, were you doing it to praise me, and to honor me? Or were you doing it as a legalistic exercise to build up some credit that makes you look good to me— and for what reason was that— did you do it expecting me to bless you somehow?” The Lord was neither approving nor disapproving their ritual in which they had poured out their souls to God over the many years. What he was doing was simply inquiring as to their motive in doing what they did. They say that they had been fasting all these years. And if we are allowed to read between the lines, we can imagine the sentiment these words carry within them— as to say that worshiping God had been such a heavy burden to carry all these years. And if the Lord were to respond as you and I may have responded, he would have said: “And believe me it was a huge burden to listen to you all these years as well, for you did it all with the wrong motive of getting something in return for it. And you had the gall to think that all this fasting and weeping pleases me!” The Lord calls them on it. “You really didn’t fast for me. And when the fast was over, you couldn’t wait to get your hands on the food spread on the tables. So when you feasted, was that also for me as well?” That is the question, always the question, is it for the Lord?
You know, the apostle Paul spoke about this to the Corinthians when he said to them: “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (1 Corinthians 8:8) Of course, he wasn’t only talking about food! Then he went on to say to them: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) So what does it all this mean? It’s simple. If you can fast or practice any other ritual for the glory of God, go ahead and do it. But if you find out that you are doing it for any motive other than for that high and noble motive in your heart, don’t do it! It’s the same for everything we do in our Christian lives. For example, our Christian faith is not only a Sunday practice. And the test of that is the life one lives every other day of the week, especially the very next day. Zechariah will call the people of Israel on this in the latter part of the chapter, specifically on the way they conduct their every day lives, their business dealings, their social life and affairs, even their very entertainments and pleasures. And what he revealed about them was that they didn’t really live their lives for the Lord at all. God spoke of something far more important than the ritual and ceremony in his people’s lives that would determine the validity of that ritual or ceremony. If you look at verse 7 again. “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?” Indeed, wasn’t it the same words that were spoken by the prophets to their ancestors who were performing the same rituals and ceremonies? And did their ancestor listen to the words the prophets spoke to them? No. And what was the result? They were taken into captivity. So then, what purpose did their rituals serve? What have they learned?
It’s certain that they hadn’t learned what God would have them learn, that’s it’s not so much about the ritual as much as it is about the heart. Surely the ceremonies and all the rituals under the heavens would be wrong and unacceptable if the heart condition is wrong; or if the heart isn’t right. The Lord clearly shows them this, again in this next part. Read verses 8-10. “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.”’” What is the Lord saying here, to them or to anyone for that matter? He’s reminding them of specific commandments he’s given them which they’ve also broken— commandments that have to do with their relationship with one another, which in turn also reflect their relationship with God himself. For how can one behave in an unseemly or godless manner with a fellow brother or even towards a stranger and then claim to have a healthy relationship with God! That’s absurd. The Lord God gave humankind Ten Commandments all of which are interlaced; the first Four spell out our relationship with God, and the last Six spell out our relationship with each other. These Commandments were never supposed to be divided up. Neither were they abolished at the advent of the age of Grace. In fact every one of them stands as a pillar to testify to Christ’s words regarding summary of the Law: “Love God and Love your neighbor.” (Luke 10:27) These commandments given to all people out of God’s loving heart, were to reflect God’s own loving grace and mercy towards each other and ultimately for the whole world. Where there’s a healthy relationship with God, there’s also a healthy relationship with each other, and God’s commands are observed in love and worship to God. In such a healthy and loving and intimate environment, whatever ritual or ceremony a congregation chooses to practice is pleasant, beautiful and pleasing to the Lord. But instead look at them in verses 8-10. The prophet here, using God’s voice revealed what’s on these people’s hearts. These people hearts were not right. Their hearts weren’t right with each other, and they certainly weren’t right with God either! In their hearts they were mistreating, exploiting and plotting evil against one another, and at the same time they continued to observe their fasts and days of prayers and mourning. Therefore, to the eyes of God Almighty, all the rituals and ceremonies in the world, all their fasting and weeping, and whatever else they were doing was in vain. It didn’t matter.
It is wrong to think that one can serve Christ and then perform our rituals and ceremonies while the heart is not right with him. It is incredible how important the heart is to Christ, and how secondary are the rituals and ceremonies we perform week after week after week. Consider for example after the resurrection of Christ how Christ Jesus met up with his disciples who were fishing at Lake Galilee. We cannot imagine what any of us would have done to Simon Peter if we had seem him, if we were in Christ’s place. We would have followed the human ritual of things and taught him a lesson he could never forget. Maybe we would have punched him or ignored him or shamed him in front of the others until he couldn’t raise his head any more. But Jesus saw his heart and he saw his pain and sorrow and most of all he saw his repentance and his deep love for Christ and his faith and his hope and much much more. And he asked him one simple question. “Do you love me.” It was the only necessary word to bring back a fallen sinner and friend and to give him the lifeline that he needs to begin a new life. It is never the ritual that counts with God, but always the attitude of the heart. That is also why Jesus is our Savior; The attitude of His heart is ever a heart that embraces anyone who trusts his love and mercy and takes his hand for a new start, even after a terrible betrayal such as Simon Peter’s. The attitude of your heart is so important to God.
We’re saying this because these days to many Christians religion is a ritual, a lifeless system that’s heavy with meaningless actions, phrases and words— just nothing but talk. You hear some say: “share the faith” when they don’t even have enough faith let alone to share, and they have no idea what they are talking about. One doesn’t share the faith, one simply speaks of Christ and what Christ has done through his gospel. Others use such clichés to feel good about themselves as if to gain merits. They might put a bumper sticker with a Jesus sign on it, and a honk if you love him, or something. Such Christianity is cold and lifeless, and it gears people away from Christ rather than to him. And it has nothing to do with the heart. If there is no deep longing for a life that pleases him, if there is no deep desire to know him, and to know his word, if there is no thirst for fellowship with him through prayer, Christianity and the church body is just a cold lifeless ceremony from Sunday to Sunday going through motions. After that everyone goes on about their business every other day of the week, wheeling and dealing like the Israelites did in verses 8-10. What kind of relationship would a churches like this have with God I wonder? A woman was once asked why she didn’t get married, and her answer was this: “I have an oven that smokes; I have a dog that barks around the house; I have a lazy cat that loafs around all day on the couch and is out half the night; why would I need a husband for?” The point is, this is the kind of relationship a lot of churches and a great many people have with God and Christ. They don’t really have a relationship with him. They think they do because they have a few items lying around the house that smoke and bark and loaf about and may spell the name of God. But they don’t really have a relationship with him. Indeed then, how important is the attitude of one’s heart! How important it is for a church and each believer to deeply have a close relationship with God which keeps the heart burning with sincere love for God and for each other!
I’m not saying that ceremonies and rituals aren’t necessary or useless all together. Not at all! But the heart is what God is looking at all the time. On the other hand, the ritual or the ceremony can be very necessary even vital in keeping one’s heart before God. I don’t know how to express this without giving an example. We had an old woman who passed on now, we called her Tia. I think her life was very difficult with a grouchy and invalid husband at home to take care of. Perhaps she also had many other family issues that complicated things even more for her, to the point of tears at time. But whenever she was able to, she made it to church. I am not sure how much she understood, or what she got out of it. It was sort of a ritual if she was able to come. But God saw her heart and it was full of faith and love for him and full of prayers for her family and for our church. She always kept us in her prayers in her heart. Here was a situation where the ritual is right when the heart is right with God. Here’s [i]another story for you to drive the point as well. It’s a story of a little guy who had to go to bed on his own because his folks had guests and sent him to bed saying: “Don’t forget to kneel down and pray after you put on your PJs, and then tuck yourself in.” The next morning his mother asked him if he’d said his prayers as she’d asked him to, and he said: “sort of.” “What do you mean, sort of?” “Well”, he said: “I got tired of saying the same thing every night and I thought God got tired of hearing it too, so I just got off my knees, got into bed and began to telling God about what Joey and I did at school yesterday— until I guess I fell asleep.” You know, maybe a lot of people can learn a lot from this kid about having the right heart instead of a good stead ritual— about breaking a ritual when your heart is not in it! I’m sure God sat up in his chair that night to listen to that kid’s story with a huge smile on his face! Perhaps the problems in today’s Christianity is there’s a lot of ritual and ceremony and many are just too comfortable with it, relying on it to cover up for what is really needed: a change of heart, a giving of the heart to the Lord; and that’s not easy. It requires a deep examination of the heart to see what the motive of the heart is in all that one does. We ought to do it often to see why we do what we do. We cannot trust our hearts. The heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).
But we can trust the Lord Jesus whose grace always leads us in the truth when we seek him in humbleness and sincerity of heart. And we can be assured that anyone who does will receive the Lord’s guiding grace to see where the heart has gone astray and the way back to the light of God’s righteous path. As for the Israelites, when God looked at their hearts, we saw in verses 8-10 that they had acted one way in the temple, fasting and praying, and they were completely different people all the other times. They had broken the sacred commands of the Lord, breaking relationship with each other, and consequently they had no relationship with God either. Their love for each other was cold as was their love for God. What happened that they had become what they were?
Read verses 11-15. “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.”’”
I like the KJV for verse 11 where it says: “And pulled away the shoulder” for it shows exactly the attitude they had before God. Like a child whose father puts a hand on his shoulder to attend to him, but the child jerks his shoulder and pulls it away in defiance to his father’s wishes. God’s grievance against their ancestors and presently against them is heartbreaking. Every time he spoke, they did not listen to his word. So when they called out to him, he didn’t listen either. In fact, he never stopped loving them. Their exile was an act of love and discipline. And even now, in throughout these people’s acts of defiance, God still loves them and is still speaking to them. He is telling them one thing. To have a change of heart attitude. They may keep their ritual or not. But their hearts must change and become right with God. We have a serious obligation before God to have a right heart before the Lord. The only way to have a right heart is through our Lord Jesus who shed his blood on the cross for our sins. There is no other way. No one can make their own heart right. Only Christ has and does that. Those who acknowledge his work on the cross and through the resurrection, also acknowledge that they are sinners who have rebelled against God, who are deaf and stubborn, and have broken every commandment, who need mercy. They come to Christ and simply receive his grace. And Christ in his mercy makes their hearts right. Now occasionally our hearts can become clouded with rituals and ceremonies and we can become comfortable and it is likely that some may also become cold and look like that woman who had a lot of items in her home that looked like a husband. What to do? Praise God whose given us Christ and his blood, and repentance, and an abundance of grace and access to his throne and forgiveness. We are his children and we only need to ask and he will make your heart right. May God Almighty make this congregation’s heart right so that everything we do may be right before him, maybe for him and his glory alone! Amen.
[i] Some illustrations have been borrowed from J Vernon McGee’s materials and altered to correspond to the message.