We are nearing the end of our study of the Minor Prophets. The last prophet we took a look at was the prophet Haggai. Well, this morning we will be spending our time with Zechariah. Zechariah and Haggai prophesied in Jerusalem during the same period of time. They are both “post-exilic” prophets, their ministry was to the people who had come back home from being exiled in Babylon for some seventy years.
What do we know about the man Zechariah? Well, not much, but we do know that Zechariah could have possibly been born in Babylon, during the time of the exile, because, in Zechariah 2:4, we learn that he was called a “young man.” We also know that Zechariah was the “son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.” (Zechariah 1:1) Zechariah’s dad must have died when he was young because in Nehemiah 12:12-21, where the names of the heads of the priestly families are listed, we find Zechariah’s name listed immediately after his grandfather, Iddo. To further support the theory that Zechariah’s father died when he was young, we read in Ezra 5:1,
1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. (Ezra 5:1 NIV)
Zechariah began his ministry in “the eight month of the second year of Darius…” (Zechariah 1:1) That would be about October or November of 520 B.C. Zechariah’s ministry began about 1500 years ago.
If you will remember, the Jews who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem and carried away to Babylon were freed by Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C. Cyrus allowed the Jews, who wanted to go home, to begin their long journey back to Jerusalem. A total of 42,360 people, plus 7337 servants and 200 singers, made the trip back to Judah with Zerubbabel and the other Jewish leaders.
With a little simple math we can figure out that Zechariah’s ministry began about 18 years after the first wave of Jews left Babylon for their homeland. Zechariah must have been just a little child on that long, long walk back to Jerusalem.
Once back in Jerusalem, the Jews found their beloved city a wreck. They began working on the temple, but opposition and apathy led to their abandoning the work on God’s house. When God raised up Haggai, the message was, “Your frustration and lack of blessing stems from the fact that you have abandoned the work on God’s house so that you can take care of your own interest. Now, get back to work and watch God begin to bless you.” Zechariah, whose ministry overlapped Haggai’s ministry for some time, preached a somewhat different message. He was no less concerned about the rebuilding of God’s house. As a matter of fact, we read in Ezra 6, that the temple was completed on March 12, 516 B.C. under the leadership of Haggai and Zechariah. Read along with me beginning in verse 14.
14 So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. 15 The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. 16 Then the people of Israel–the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles–celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:14-16 NIV)
Zechariah was concerned about the people getting back to what mattered most, getting back to seeking God. If you read Zechariah and Haggai back-to-back, you will notice some great differences. Zechariah can be divided into two parts: First, from Zechariah 1:1-8:23 we have prophecies that are rooted in the experiences of the people present in Jerusalem at the time. Secondly, in Zechariah 9:1-14:20 we have prophecies that are more future oriented. Some of Zechariah’s prophecies are like the prophecies found in Daniel and Ezekiel. They contain various visions of things like a man among the myrtle trees, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, and four chariots and a high priest just to name a few. Zechariah is an example of what is called, “early apocalyptic” literature. The New Living Translation Study Bible describes this genre of literature:
This genre of writing interprets current events and predicts future events by means of symbolic language, ciphers, and codes. Such writing is usually accompanied by an angelic mediator (1:9). The settings, characters, and events of apocalyptic literature tend to go beyond ordinary reality. The visions depict literal events, but the symbolic descriptions do not necessarily represent the events literally. (The New Living Translation Study Bible. pg. 1526)
One really interesting thing about Zechariah’s book of prophecy is that it is the most messianic of the prophets in the Old Testament. Without using the name Jesus, Zechariah speaks in various ways about the coming Messiah and the comfort that He will bring to God’s people. Let me give you just a sample of what I am talking about. In Zechariah 9:9 we read,
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9 NIV)
This verse is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21:1-5 and in John 12:12-16. We learn that God’s King is a King of character—He is just, He brings salvation, and He is humble.
Another famous verse that most of us have heard at one time or another is found in Zechariah 12:10. Read along with me.
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” (Zechariah 12:10 NIV)
Portions of this verse are quoted in John 19:37. The last example that I want to show you is found in Zechariah 13:7. Read it with me.
7 “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. (Zechariah 13:7 NIV)
Jesus quotes from this section of Zechariah in Matthew 26:31 and Mark 14:27. These are just a sampling of the references in Zechariah to the Lord’s Messiah. The truth is that Zechariah is overflowing with a glorious vision of God’s coming King, the One we know as Jesus, our Messiah.
There are fourteen chapters in Zechariah’s prophecy and there is no way that we could ever get through all fourteen chapters this morning so I have chosen to focus the bulk of our attention on Zechariah 7. If you will turn there with me, let’s read together.
1 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. 2The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech, together with their men, to entreat the LORD 3 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?” 4 Then 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? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? 7 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?’” 8 And 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. 10 Do 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. 12 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. 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.’” (Zechariah 7:1-14 NIV)
This section of Scripture is not one of the visions the Lord gave to Zechariah. It is an experience that happened in the day-to-day living of life as Zechariah went about the city ministering to the people. Zechariah records the date in which the experience took place. It happened “in the fourth year of King Darius.” That would be about November or December of 518 B.C. That would be two years after the Word of the Lord first came to Zechariah and about two years before the temple was completed.
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah after some men from Bethel came to ask a question that was important to them. Their question was, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” For a second time in the first four verses we read, “the Word of the Lord came…” This should convince us that the answer to follow came from God and was not merely Zechariah’s answer.
Before we get to God’s answer we need to ask the question, “What was significant about the fifth month that led to the people mourning?” God had called for only one fast for the His people, but it was to take place in the seventh month, not the fifth. The fast prescribed by the Lord is the fast that took place as part of the celebration of the Day of Atonement. You can read about it in Leviticus 23:26-27.
26 The LORD said to Moses, 27 “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. (Leviticus 23:26-27 NIV)
The men who came from Bethel weren’t asking about this fast. They were asking about a fast that they had been observing during the fifth month. To understand this fast, you need to know that since the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the Jews in Babylon had observed four additional fasts connected to the fall of their city.
• On the seventh day of the fourth month, Thammuz, which is about our July, the Jews mourned the capture of their city.
• On the ninth day of the fifth month, Ab, our August, the Jews remembered the burning of their city and the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar.
• On the third day of the seventh month, Tishri, our October, they remembered the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar.
• On the tenth day of the tenth month, Tebeth, our January, they fasted in remembrance of the day when Nebuchadnezzar began his siege of Jerusalem.
In verse 3, the men had asked about the fast they had been observing in the fifth month as they remembered the burning of the city and the destruction of the temple. What is interesting is that God, instead of answering their question, has Zechariah ask them a question.
4 Then 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? (Zechariah 7:4-5 NIV)
The question the men brought to Jerusalem was a legitimate question to them. I mean, after all, the reconstruction of the temple was underway and would be finished in about two years. They wanted to know, “Now that the temple is being rebuilt, is it really necessary for us to keep the fast that reminds us of the destruction of the temple?” God wants to know, “Why were you fasting in the first place? Were you repenting of the sin that brought about the destruction of the temple? Were you remembering the destruction and crying out to Me for healing and deliverance? Why were you fasting in the first place?” Those weren’t God’s exact words. Look at verses 5-6 and let’s see what God actually told Zechariah to ask the people.
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? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6 NIV)
The people didn’t get an answer. They got a question. God kind has a habit of doing that doesn’t He? Job said he wanted to ask God some questions. When God showed up He had some questions for Job. The men who brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus had a question. They said, 5 “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:5 NIV) “What do you say Jesus?” Jesus, in turn, asked them a question. “Who among you is without sin? Let him stone her.” Their self-righteousness melted on the Mount of Olives. They dropped their rocks and headed home with their heads hung down.
God intended for His question to have the same effect. He didn’t answer the men who wanted to know if they needed to continue their fast, but He did ask them, “Why have you been fasting all these years?” Then, in verse 7, God reminds the people that this is not the first time they, or their ancestors, have been questioned in this manner. Read along with me.
7 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?’” (Zechariah 7:7 NIV)
We are not told which prophets questioned the fasting of God’s people in times past, but they knew which ones God was talking about. In Isaiah 58:2-7 we read,
2 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. 3 ‘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. 4 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. 5 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? 6 “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? 7 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? (Isaiah 58:2-7 NIV)
Did you notice what the people were saying about God’s response to their fasts? In Isaiah 58:3 we read,
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (Isa 58:3 NIV)
They were thinking and saying what many of us think and say when we don’t feel like God is giving us our due when we are doing sooo much for Him. Do you know what I’m talking about? You know the people I’m talking about? People like you and me. I go to church most every Sunday. I even go to Sunday school and a couple of Bible studies each week. Yet, I see my neighbor who doesn’t do any of that and he is living “high on the hog.” Sometimes I stop and ask myself, “Why am I going to all of this trouble if God isn’t going to make my life better.”
Maybe one of you volunteered to help with one of the ministries here at Britton Christian Church. You poured your heart and soul into it, but you didn’t get much of a response. You were disappointed, but didn’t quit. No, you decided you would spend time in prayer each day asking the Lord to bring new people and expand your ministry. You prayed for the better part of a year, but nothing changed. Finally, you asked the dreaded question, “Why am I banging my head against a wall when hardly anyone is showing up? Why am I sacrificing so much time when God isn’t bringing any new people?”
Maybe you heard the unsettling news that your loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Once the shock wore off you decided that God was going to heal your loved one. Your “religious devotion” went through the roof. You gave like you’ve never given before. You went to church every time the door was open. You read your Bible like it was your lifeline. Yet, you continued to watch your loved one’s health decline. You asked the dreaded question, “Lord, why am I doing all of this if you aren’t going to heal her?”
Folks, we need to pay attention to God’s question, “Why do we do the things we do?” Our “worship,” our fasting, our feasting, our service, our giving, our prayer, our study of His Word—all of these are wonderful blessings if they come from a heart devoted and passionate about knowing and loving Him more and more. At the same time, these same things can be evil if they are seen as some sort of magical prescription to get God to perform for us. God is not an “organ grinder” or some “play for pay” street performer like the ones in Jackson Square in New Orleans. He is the Holy and Righteous God who knows our hearts through and through.
Amos preached to the northern kingdom of Israel, but his message was the same as Isaiah and Zechariah. The people of the northern kingdom evidently suffered from the same heart problems as the folks who had resettled Jerusalem. In Amos 5:21-24 we read.
21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 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. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24 NIV)
Religion kills. Religion is worthless if it is not backed up by a passion for seeking God above all else. Religion is worthless if it does not lead to a transformed life that seeks to bless those that God leads into our lives. This is why God’s pointed question came to the men from Bethel. They were going through the motions and performing their religious rituals, but it wasn’t translating into a transformed life. They lived just like the rest of the people around them. In Zechariah 7:8-10 we read.
8 And 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. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’ (Zechariah 7:8-10 NIV)
The men wanted to know if they should fast, but God said, “Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Take care of the widow, the fatherless, the alien, and those who are poor. Oh, and one more thing, stop being so cynical about one another.” What a message.
It is the message that God has given to His people throughout the ages, but like those who were alive in Isaiah and Amos’ day, like those who were alive in Zechariah’s day, and those who were alive in Jesus’ day, we too have stopped up our ears, hardened our hearts, and gone on about our business. We do so at our own peril my friends.
We pretend not to “hear” God. We act like we don’t know what God wants us to do. We come up with reasons why we can’t do what God wants us to do. Or, we exchange cold religious rituals for a surrendered daily walk of obedience and love with God. All of these lead to a hardened heart. The more we try to ignore God or defy God, the harder our hearts get. Over and over again God comes to His people and says, “Don’t harden your hearts.”
We have two options this morning my friends. We can either worship and bow down before the Lord or we can harden our hearts. There is no middle ground. I love Psalm 95 partly because these two actions are found side by side. The Psalmist invites the people to come and worship and then immediately follows the invitation with a warning, “Don’t harden your hearts.” Read it with me.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; 7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did… (Psalm 95:6-9 NIV)
What will it be for you this morning? We have seen what God has done. We have been so blessed have we not? God is the author of every smile that has ever crossed our face and He is the strength that has carried us through the most difficult times of this life. Not only is He present to give us hope for this life, but He has provided for us through His Son Jesus so that we long for heaven. We don’t fear death. We long for heaven. After seeing what God has done and continues to do, what will you do? Will you worship and bow down or will you harden your heart?
Britton Christian Church
November 14, 2010