Fasts of Mourning Turned to Joy (Zechariah 7-8) July 28-29
Zechariah 7:1 is dated to the fourth day of the ninth month Kislev in the fourth year of Darius, corresponding to late November of 518 B.C. Almost two years have passed since Zechariah's memorable night of visions and the symbolic coronation of the high priest Joshua (see 1:7). With the decree of Darius in the intervening time bringing about a sea change in the region-the Persian province of which Judea was part now helping to provide for the temple's construction-the rebuilding of the temple was really on the move. The nation was now being blessed instead of cursed, so we would presume the people were seeing bigger harvests and greater wealth and prosperity in general. The nation's spiritual renewal had progressed even further. This was a time of restoration and great joy. The 70 years since the former temple's destruction were nearly over-only two more years to go! So this prompted a sensible question regarding certain national fast days that had been instituted as times of mourning over the calamities at the beginning of the exile.
A delegation is sent to the temple in Jerusalem to pray and inquire of the priests and the prophets (the latter referring to Zechariah and Haggai) about the matter (7:2-3). The New King James Version says the deputation was sent "to the house of God" (verse 2). Others, such as the NIV, translate this as "from Bethel," the town 12 miles north of Jerusalem. The uncertainty stems from the fact that in Hebrew Beth-El means "house of God." The town of Bethel seems more likely as the temple is nowhere else referred to in Scripture as Beth-El and verse 3 immediately afterward refers to the temple as "the house of the Lord of hosts." "Over two hundred Jews from Bethel returned from Babylon in 538 B.C. (Ezra 2:28; Neh. 7:32), and the city was reoccupied during the restoration period (Neh. 11:31)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Zechariah 7:3).
Zechariah then gives God's response in chapters 7-8, each of four sections beginning with the same basic wording (see 7:4, 8; 8:1, 18). The fact that the last section returns to the matter of the fasts shows that these are really four parts of one prophecy.
As recorded, the question was particularly concerned with the fast of the fifth month, the 9th of Av (see 7:3), as this day commemorated the destruction of Solomon's temple. But perhaps the other fasts were initially mentioned as well. God's first response through Zechariah also mentions the fast of the seventh month (verse 5). This does not refer to the fast God commanded in the Law for the seventh month, the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:29). Rather these (and the other two mentioned in Zechariah 8:18) were all instituted through tradition:
"Counting the beginning of the year from the month of Nisan, the Jewish sages identified these dates as follows (in the Talmudical tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b): the fast of the fourth month fell on the ninth of Tammuz, the day when the city walls were breached (2 Kings 25:3-4; Jer. 39:2); the fast of the fifth month was on the ninth of Ab, when the house of God was destroyed by fire (2 Kings 25:8-10); the fast of the seventh month was on the third of Tishri, the anniversary of the assassination of Gedaliah the son of Ahikam (ibid. 25; Jer. 41:2); and the fast of the tenth month fell on the tenth of Tebeth, which was the day when the king of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1, Ezek. 24:2). In Zechariah's day, sixty-eight years after the destruction, when the rebuilding of the Temple was almost complete, the question naturally arose whether the time had not come to annul these fasts, since Jeremiah's prophecy about the duration of the exile might well be thought to have been fulfilled" (The Illustrated Family Encyclopedia of the Living Bible, Vol. 8, p. 93, quoted in Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Zechariah 7:2-3).
Rather than a simple yes or no, God points out that there's a much larger question to look at here with regard to what is being asked. Just what are these fast days all about anyway? He does not condemn the idea of national fast days. Instead, the real issue is one of motive and making sure to properly prioritize what is truly important. The exiles who have returned have undergone a period of spiritual renewal. But they still have areas to grow in-just as Christians do many years after conversion. God wants the people of Judea-and those Jews who were still in Babylon for that matter (as word would no doubt get back to them)-to really examine their hearts and consider the reasons they did the things they did, including why they engaged in the particular religious practices they did.
God asks, "Did you really fast for Me-for Me?" (verse 5). The sad truth is that their fasting was selfishly motivated. In verse 6, God says the same was true in regard to their feasting-it was all for themselves. It may be hard, though, to understand how self-denial can be selfish. Yet consider that rather than using fasting as a tool to draw closer to God, to realize total dependence on Him and more readily discern His will-which is the true purpose of fasting-the people were using the fasts to both wallow in self-pity and make God feel sorry enough for them to do something for them. Moreover, some likely fasted to feel good about themselves-and some to prove their righteousness to others. Centuries later, Jesus Christ would condemn such impure motives for fasting (Matthew 6:16-18).
Realize, further, that these fasts were instituted to mourn the terrible calamities that God had brought, not to mourn over and consider the behavior that had brought the punishment-the nation's sins. Whereas it would have been fitting to use these anniversaries as opportunities to reflect on just why they had gone into exile, they merely grieved over their circumstances. Where was the searching self-examination and the depth of heartfelt repentance that God desires? As we will see, the people continued in many of their wrong attitudes and practices. So when they persisted in violating what God commanded, He would of course not look very highly on their form of piety that He did not command. Again, however, traditional national fast days were not the problem. The problem was attitude and motive. The same wrong mindset of the people could of course attach to God's commanded Holy Days too-and in fact did. It was just particularly incongruous that fasting over calamities would ignore the very reasons for the calamities!
In verses 8-10, God reminds the people to focus on what's really important-the weightier matters of the law, such as justice, mercy, faith and love (compare Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), the true religion of looking out for the widow and orphan (see James 1:27), and other matters of serving and helping one's neighbor. It was the refusal of their forefathers to heed this message that brought about the exile (Zechariah 7:11-14). These are the kinds of contemplative thoughts the national fast days should have been stimulating. The fact is, the relationship of the people to God could not have been right or they would have been right with one another (compare Matthew 5:23-24). Faith without a right way of life is a mockery of everything God stands for. The same challenge exists for God's people today. Fasting, prayer, Bible reading, church attendance and the like can all become shallow rituals if they are not accompanied by a genuine desire to serve God and a lifestyle of integrity and outgoing concern toward others.
Zechariah 8 "continues the thought of the previous chapter. The prophet emphasized in chapter 7 the need of obedience from the fate of their fathers [a warning]; now he exhorts them in chapter 8 to the same condition of heart by placing before them promises of God's future blessing [a message of the good news of God's Kingdom]. This section parallels that of 1:14-17, just as chapter 7 answered to 1:1-6" (Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, p. 308). The Church of God today is also to deliver a warning and call to repentance as well as the all-important message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
God in the person of Christ will come to literally dwell in Jerusalem (see 8:3). Chapter 8 gives us a beautiful picture of the security, peace and joy that will then permeate not only the Holy City but all the world. Considering the terror and violence of the Middle East today, the imagery in verses 4-5 of people growing to great age and children playing in Jerusalem's streets is an astounding contrast. Expositor's comments on verse 6: "Such things may have seemed too good to be true in the eyes of the Jewish remnant living 'at that time,' but the Lord Almighty did not so regard them. Nothing is too hard for him (see Gen 18:14...). [Merrill Unger]... explains the thought of the verse thus: 'If the remnant of the nation in that future day will scarcely be able to comprehend how such miraculous things just promised could become a reality, the divine reply is, "Because they seem difficult to you, must they also seem hard to me?"' The answer is obvious."
In verses 7-8, God promises the restoration of all His people. He will gather them from both east and west-that is, from wherever they have been scattered throughout the world.
In verses 9-10, God encourages His people to be strong in their work of building the temple-and there is likely a spiritual meaning for His spiritual people of the end time intended here too. With confidence in God's promises, we should be strong in participating in God's spiritual-temple-building work today.
Israel will be blessed tremendously. Notice that God says He will deliver both Judah and Israel at that time-that is, all 12 tribes (verses 11-13).
In verses 14-17 God again sets forth our moral responsibilities-as all people living by these precepts is the way that will bring about the wonderful world of peace God proclaims.
Finally, in verses 18-19, God returns to the matter of the Jewish fasts. During the millennial reign of Christ, they will be turned into times of joy and feasting. This would parallel Christ's point about His followers not fasting while He was with them (Matthew 9:15). In the future Kingdom of God, Christ will again dwell with His people.
"Therefore," God instructs at the end of Zechariah 8:19, "love truth and peace." God's point through all that we have read is that our integrity and manner of life-in thought, word and deed-is what is most important. We cannot substitute false piety for righteousness-for that will serve only to take us away from God. Instead, in drawing close to Him by striving to obey all His commands, paying special heed to areas of life He refers to as more important, God's people will ultimately live in a perfect world of peace where they will never again need to seek of Him the reason for their national punishment through fasting. For they will be perpetually delivered. That, Zechariah proclaims, is where the focus needs to be.
How, then, was this matter of the fasts resolved? We are not specifically told. "According to Jewish tradition, when the nation was in peace and prosperity the fasts were suspended; when they were in trouble the fasts were reinstituted. Since AD 70 [when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple] the Jews keep the principal fasts" (Feinberg, p. 312). This would seem to be acceptable, as long as the right focus is maintained when participating in the fasts. As Jesus said in the same verse cited above, Matthew 9:15, His own followers would fast when He was no longer with them. Of course, this refers more to personally chosen times. Yet national days of prayer and fasting on traditional days would be acceptable as well as long as they don't devolve into ritualism, legalism, self-pity or false piety.
While the negative aspect here sadly still often characterizes Jewish religious practice today, that will not be the case in the world to come. Indeed, the people of other nations in the Millennium will even seek out the Jews as those who are close to God-and who can therefore guide and teach them in the ways of true worship (Zechariah 8:20-23).