A Question Concerning Fasting

1In 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. 2The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech, together with their men, to entreat the Lord 3by 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?"

4Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: 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? 6And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? 7Are 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?’"

8And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9"This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’

11"But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. 12They 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.

13"‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty. 14‘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.’"

Some time after Zechariah received his visions from the Lord, the word of the Lord came to him again. The occasion was a visit by some people from Bethel: "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?’" (vss. 1–3). Some of the returned exiles from the town of Bethel came to Jerusalem to ask a question to the priests concerning yearly fasts that they had been observing. The question was simple: Should they keep observing these fasts? They most likely thought that they would get a "yes" or "no" answer from the priests. What they got was a two-chapter answer from the Lord Himself, who reproofed and exhorted them concerning their worship of Him. This answer, which was given through Zechariah, comprises chapters 7 and 8 of the book of Zechariah.

Their question concerned a fast during the fifth month that commemorated the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar (see II Kings 25:8–9). They apparently had observed this fast during the 70 years of exile. They were asking this question two years after work had resumed on rebuilding the Temple. Now that there was considerable progress made on restoring the Temple, they naturally wondered whether they should observe a fast that commemorated its destruction.

It should be noted that only one regular, commemorative fast was instituted by the Lord Himself, and that is the abstention required on the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16:29; Lev. 23:27ff). The fast that commemorated the destruction of the Temple, about which the people from Bethel were asking, was a burden the people put upon themselves. Moreover, in addition to this fast in the fifth month, apparently the people had also instituted fasts in the fourth, seventh and tenth months (see Zech. 8:19). These presumably commemorated other significant events that occurred during the conquest of Israel, such as the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (see II Kings 25:1–2; Jer. 39:1), and the breaching of the city wall (see Jer. 39:2).

In His answer to the people, the Lord addresses all of these fasts that the people instituted, specifically addressing the attitude with which they observed the fasts, and their actions during the fasts: "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?’" (vs. 4–7). This first response to their question is a set of rhetorical questions asked of them by the Lord. These rhetorical questions suggest that the people were fasting for selfish reasons; and then when they weren’t fasting, they were feasting strictly for themselves: "Was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?" (vs. 5–7).

Fasts, rightly observed, are times of mourning and grief over one’s own sins and failures to do God’s will. They are times to seek God’s will with an acute awareness that all things come from His hands, and with an awareness that we do not deserve any of the blessings we receive from God. There are two primary ways that fasts are made into selfish activities. The first way is when one uses a fast to call attention to one’s religiosity. The faster lets others know that he is fasting, with the desire that others will look upon him as being especially godly. Jesus spoke against fasting in this way: "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matt. 6:16–18).

The second primary way that a fast is made into a selfish activity is when one fasts with the expectation that the fasts, in and of themselves, will bring rewards from God. The fast is improperly used as an "end", not a means to seek God’s will. The faster thinks that God will bless him simply for the act of fasting. This is "works"-based thinking: "If I do this religious ritual, God will bless me." "They thought that God must bless them, indeed was bound to bless them, if they rigidly observed these outward rites, whatever was their inward character" [Moore, 106].

In verse 7, the Lord points out that He instructed the people concerning their empty religious rituals through earlier prophets: "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?" Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord spoke these words concerning improper fasting:

"For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling 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? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I" (Isa. 58:2–9)

The Lord repeats this sentiment through Zechariah: "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"’" (vss. 8–10). A religious ritual such as fasting, indeed any method of worshiping God, is worthless if it is not accompanied by a life that seeks to obey God. "The point is clear. God is not content with mere ceremonial acts. On the contrary, He actually hates such acts if they are not preceded and accompanied by a genuine love for God and other people" [Boice, 184]. Basic godliness requires these traits: "justice", "mercy", "compassion". To go through religious rituals, yet to lack these traits, is not only hypocritical, it is also blasphemous. The person who makes an outward show of being religious, yet at the same time is unjust, unmerciful, or lacking in compassion, blasphemes God, for he misrepresents the character of God.

The Lord reminds the Bethelites that the children of Israel ignored His instructions through the earlier prophets: "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" (vss. 11–12). A progression is suggested here: first, they "refused to pay attention", then they "stubbornly turned their backs", and finally, "stopped up their ears". By doing this, "they made their hearts as hard as flint". This all resulted in the Lord becoming "very angry". They stopped listening to God, so He stopped listening to their prayers: "‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen’ says the Lord Almighty" (vs. 13). Without God’s help, we are at the mercy of this fallen world. The Israelites had many enemies, and the absence of God’s protection resulted in disaster: "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" (vs. 14). "As they pushed from them the yoke of obedience, God laid on them the yoke of oppression. As they made their hearts hard…, God broke their hard hearts with judgments. Hard hearts must expect hard treatment." [JFB, 682].

By reminding them of all this, God is exhorting the people to learn from the mistakes of the past. The cause of the events for which the Bethelites were fasting was disobedience. The Bethelites themselves were in danger of falling into the same disobedience as their ancestors, for the Bethelites were not observing their fasts rightly. They were ignoring the instructions that God gave through the earlier prophets.

To exhort people to look at the past, and learn from the mistakes of their forefathers, can be an effective way to encourage obedience to God. Another effective way to encourage obedience is to look forward to the future. In the next chapter, the Lord will finish the answer to the Bethelites’ question, by giving magnificent promises concerning the future of Israel.

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