False Fasting and Former Days

Zechariah 7

Then it came about in the fourth year of King Darius, that the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. Now the town of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regemmelech and their men to seek the favor of the LORD, speaking to the priests who belong to the house of the LORD of hosts, and to the prophets saying, “Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?” Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me saying, “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? ‘And when you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves? ‘Are not these the words which the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous with its cities around it, and the Negev and the foothills were inhabited?’ ”  Then the word of the LORD came to Zechariah saying, “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’ “But they refused to pay attention, and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing. “And they made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the LORD of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts. “And it came about that just as He called and they would not listen, so they called and I would not listen,” says the LORD of hosts; “but I scattered them with a storm wind among all the nations whom they have not known. Thus the land is desolated behind them, so that no one went back and forth, for they made the pleasant land desolate.”

Between the Coronavirus, riots, protests and the fallout from these things and from a digestive problem that I have dealt with for years, I decided that now would be a good time for me to fast. Normally when I fast I don’t let anyone know that I am fasting because I am a bit legalistic when it comes to what Jesus said; “And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” But considering today’s text and the fact that I wasn’t considering today’s text, I thought it a good opportunity to share why I am fasting and the juxtaposition of my fasting to today’s text.

First of all, my stomach is asking me, “when are you going to feed me?” My response is, “when are you going to stop being a jerk?” On and off, for most of my life, mostly on, I have had difficulty with digestion. Lately it has switched from cramping and abdominal pain, which I had learned to deal with, to severe acid reflux and heartburn–more like throat burn with a little vomit. My friend’s wife gave me a list of foods to eat and avoid and within 24 hours, the persistent pain was gone. Therefore my fasting is not entirely about me because the heartburn is all but under control but a seed was planted by a new diet.

Furthermore, I spoke with some friends in a certain communist country in the Caribbean. Since we were unable to go this year, I know that means tourists are also not going to this certain communist country in the Caribbean. And although the government forces communism on its people, the government in quite capitalistic, making its money off tourism. When I spoke with my friends, some said that they have no food. Some said they have little but it’s just enough. One sent me a video of the “bread line” turning into a protest because the 200 hundred or so people in line waiting to get food were told that their was no food (and Bernie Sanders won several states in United States primaries?). Surely some solidarity with my friends was in mind and that seed was planted as I considered fasting. The words of my pastor when I was growing up ring like a bell in my mind. Communism says, “bread for the masses” but Jesus says, “man shall not live on bread alone.” Ironically they have no bread, simply because socialism doesn’t work but my thought process in fasting is that I will be better at praying for them while empty myself. Empathy to their struggle can come by my emptiness. Ultimately I pray for their bodies but I pray much more for them to consider the context of the Bible. I pray that somehow we will be able to return to them and teach them that the mega-church pastors are leading them astray. They have much admixture in their worship and listen to false prophets with false promises. While it sounds familiar to what’s happening in the United States, it is much more prevalent 90 miles off the shores of South Florida, in their country. Yes, they are hungry, as am I, but hopefully we are all more hungry for the Word of God.

In an utter irony, I didn’t consider today’s text when the seed of fasting was planted in my mind. That’s a confession, take it in that regard. While my fasting may be a bit selfish considering my stomach, I truly did enter into the fast craving Spiritual food and insight. I guess you could say that I seized the opportunity but less for myself and more for others. If my fasting can somehow how help me communicate with those in a certain communist country in the Caribbean that the sublime string of the Bible needs to be seen, I would consider that a victory. If somehow the slightly hypocritical aspect of my fasting helps us understand the completely hypocritical aspect of the fasting in Zechariah, I would consider that a victory as well–baby steps. Therefore let’s look at the scenario we see in Zechariah.

“Then it came about in the fourth year of King Darius, that the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. Now the town of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regemmelech and their men to seek the favor of the LORD, speaking to the priests who belong to the house of the LORD of hosts, and to the prophets saying, ‘Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?’ Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me saying, ‘Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted?”””

Remember the context, the people have returned from exile after seventy years. They were in exile because of the disobedience of their ancestors. Zechariah saw visions of a coming king and high priest who was also coming with a curse. It is within this context that the Lord rhetorically asks, “was it actually for Me that you fasted?” Seventy years they had spent in exile and the Lord challenges them by asking them if they were fasting for the Lord or for their return to the land. This is made obvious by the question they ask. Look again at the question. “Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?” The question is a “tell,” it’s the proverbial tipping of one’s hand. By the question we see that they thought that fasting was over because they fasted for a return to the land and now that they were back in the land, they hoped that they could stop fasting. God calls them out on this by answering their question with a question of his own, to point out their hypocrisy. They weren’t fasting for Spiritual reasons but for material reasons.

The Lord continues to question their motives, rhetorically; “And when you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves?” God points to the selfishness in every aspect of their lives with these two questions. When they ate it was for themselves and when they didn’t eat it was for themselves. I obviously see the hypocrisy in myself as I consider my motivation for fasting, originally it was for myself. I wanted to be healthier. While that may not sound selfish, it is. I thought of myself first and then thought of the Lord. Nevertheless, God is good and he turned my somewhat selfish desire into an opportunity for an example and a Spiritual blessing.

The Lord asks one more question; “Are not these the words which the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous with its cities around it, and the Negev and the foothills were inhabited?” The fast wasn’t supposed to be for a returning remnant to reenter the land. Here is a bit more of my hypocrisy. I’m a lot like them. I only fast when prompted by percieved problems. That is to say that on the 10 best days of my life, I wasn’t fasting. It takes heartburn, Covid19, my friends in a certain communist country in the Caribbean being hungry and protest to remind me to fast. In the same way, Israel was to fast in the good times as well as the bad times. “In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider– God has made the one as well as the other So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.” Nevertheless, I believe that now is a good time for me to fast, given all the prompting. But consider what the Lord says to them by questioning them. They were to regularly fast for Spiritual benefit and not for material things.

“Then the word of the LORD came to Zechariah saying, ‘Thus has the LORD of hosts said, “Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” But they refused to pay attention, and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing. And they made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the LORD of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts.'”

Through Zechariah the Lord reminds the people present of the purpose of the Law. God was not about ritual rights, taught traditions or going through the motions but about changed hearts and minds that changed behaviors, as Jesus summed up the law by telling his generation to love the Lord with all one’s heart and mind and to love one’s neighbor as himself. But Israel practiced a taught-tradition, ritualistic religion. The people present lived after the return from exile but were in the exile themselves. Their ancestors had not heeded the warnings of the former prophets such as Isaiah.

“Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; For the LORD speaks, ‘Sons I have reared and brought up, But they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.’ Alas, sinful nation, People weighed down with iniquity, Offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the LORD, They have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, As you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick, And the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head There is nothing sound in it, Only bruises, welts, and raw wounds, Not pressed out or bandaged, Nor softened with oil. Your land is desolate, Your cities are burned with fire, Your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence; It is desolation, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, Like a watchman’s hut in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. Unless the LORD of hosts Had left us a few survivors, We would be like Sodom, We would be like Gomorrah. Hear the word of the LORD, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah. ‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ Says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, And the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies— I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you, Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless; Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword.’ Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

“How the faithful city has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers. Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them. Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts, The Mighty One of Israel declares, ‘Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries, And avenge Myself on My foes. I will also turn My hand against you, And will smelt away your dross as with lye, And will remove all your alloy. Then I will restore your judges as at the first, And your counselors as at the beginning; After that you will be called the city of righteousness, A faithful city. Zion will be redeemed with justice, And her repentant ones with righteousness. But transgressors and sinners will be crushed together, And those who forsake the LORD shall come to an end.”

Notice the last part, “And those who forsake the LORD shall come to an end.” And remember the context of Zechariah. In Zechariah we see the Lord reminding them of their ancestors and in Isaiah we see their ancestors, but ancestors only slightly removed in the scope of the history of mankind. I believe that this is why Zechariah begins this part of his prophecy by writing, “Then it came about in the fourth year of King Darius, that the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev.” We see the concern of the fast but also can know that it hasn’t been a very long time since the beginning of the deportation to Babylon and only a few years since the return. Yet it has been long enough that it is highly unlikely that anyone who was alive in the time of Isaiah is alive in today’s text. And in that, I believe we see the warning.

God reminds the people present of the failure of their parents and grandparents and tells them that they are on the same path. And as Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, Zechariah also points to Jesus. In Isaiah we see the suffering servant but in Zechariah we see the coming king and high priest. In both we see the great prophet. And when Jesus came, he promised them that the coming curse, which goes all the way back to Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, would happen in their generation. We’ve seen it in Isaiah and in Zechariah as a flying scroll. When Jesus comes, the curse comes with him. Slightly confused but understanding the prophets, the disciples ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”

Stringing the sublime string together, we see that the end of the age was the end of the Judaic eon and not the end of the world. The disciples were confused because Jesus was predicting his death to them, and they understood that his coming brought the curse. But not only the curse, but the restoration of the people of God–his kingdom. A kingdom of which, Jesus said, was like a mustard seed that starts small but slowly grows into a large tree. But how could Jesus do this if he was going to die? Even after his resurrection, we remember that some doubted.

“But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'”

We notice the nations, as was foretold by Isaiah and Zechariah, among others. We notice the authority and the end of the age. And it is hotly contested what Jesus meant when he said, “the end of the age.” I think the continuing context is clear, he referred to the end of the Judaic eon. Not that Jesus is not with us now or won’t be with us in the future. But he is harkening back to Matthew 24 when he promised them persecution, tribulation and even death. They asked him when the end of the age would come and he told them; in their generation. He is now comforting them that he is in total control and that their labor would not be in vain because the age of temple worship and animal sacrifice was coming to an end and the age of grace had come. See the book of Hebrews.

The people in Isaiah made Jerusalem desolate and the people in Zechariah were reminded of this. They were to rebuild the temple that toppled, as a warning, so that the Messiah could come to his temple and find the robbery and falsehood in the temple. It’s been taught that Jesus came to his temple and found things not as they were supposed to be. While there is some truth to that, the total truth is that Jesus came to his temple and found it exactly as he said he would, full of robbery and deceit. Jesus came to build a greater temple, to be a greater king than Solomon, a greater prophet than Isaiah, a greater governor than Zerubbabel and a greater high priest than Joshua. No, Jesus didn’t find things out of order when he came to his temple because he came to his temple to put things in order.

The scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees made the land desolate as their ancestors had by their taught traditions and ritualistic religion. They killed the Messiah and the prophets. Nevertheless Jesus sent them more prophets and they stoned them too. But their robbery and deceit, along with their murders, as predicted by a flying scroll, came to an end in 70 AD when Christ’s prophecy of a temple toppling came to fruition verbatim. Not one stone was left on top of another.

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