Zechariah 7-8. Rebuke, Repentance, Fasts and Feasts

Zechariah received his night visions in 520 BC. Two years later, in 518 BC (the fourth year of the reign of Darius), he received four messages from the Lord. These messages were in response to a question posed to Zechariah about observing certain traditions of fasting. A Jewish delegation from Bethel came to Jerusalem to ask the prophet whether the nation should continue to fast in remembrance of Jerusalem’s destruction (7:2-3). The question raised by the delegation implied a desire to discontinue the self-imposed religious observance of fasting in the fifth month, which commemorated the destruction of the city and temple by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:8-10).

The Lord gave four messages in response to this question, but the final answer is only given in the fourth message (8:18-19). The messages are as follows:

1. A Message of rebuke (7:4-7)

The first divine message reminded the people that God warned their fathers through the earlier prophets that He wanted true worship – not only the outward observance of rituals without repenting of their sins (cf. Isa. 1:11-20). “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me – for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?” (7:5-6). God’s rebuke was against empty formalism devoid of spiritual reality, for whether fasting or feasting they did it not for the Lord but for themselves. They only maintained their traditional Jewish religion without truly serving God and repenting from their sins.

Although God ordered national periods of fasting en humbling before Him during times of crises (Joel 1:14), these are not be observed in a casual way without repentance: “Is this not the fast I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness… then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you… then you shall call, and the LORD will answer” (Isa. 58:6-9).

2. A Message of repentance (7:8-14)

A clear message of repentance was again sent to Israel as that was the only way of escaping God’s judgements upon sin: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother. But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the LORD of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the LORD of hosts” (7:9-12).

The Lord was looking for the following proofs of a godly life of righteousness in stead of a self-centred life which is characterised by apathy, imperviousness, lies and evil thoughts:

·       The practising of true justice. David administered judgement and justice to all his people (1 Chron. 18:14). To do otherwise is sin: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 17:15).

·       The showing of mercy and compassion to fellow-Israelites. These are divine characteristics (Ex. 34:6; Deut. 30:3) that should be shown to the needy and destitute by those who received mercy and compassion from God.

·       Caring for widows, orphans or children in single-parent families, as well as foreigners and poor people. “The LORD your God… shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Israel, as well as all other nations, shouldn’t oppress the weak and the poor, and they shouldn’t despise foreigners who turn to them for help in times of need.

Israel hardened their hearts against God, refused to repent, and openly committed all the sinful acts against which they were warned. They rejected the warnings that God gave through His Holy Spirit and the ministries of various prophets (7:12). In so doing, they kindled the wrath of God upon themselves. The result is that God did not answer their prayers when they were in trouble (7:13). Instead, they were taken captive by their enemies and scattered among all nations. God says: “I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations which they had not known” (7:14). The Babylonian exile of the Jews was only a partial fulfilment of this prophecy, as it clearly alludes to their international dispersion. That only happened in New Testament times after they had rejected Jesus as Messiah.

The Lord Jesus warned Israel against their coming ordeal, and emphasised the fact that they would also be judged for condoning and perpetuating their fathers’ evil deeds: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites… you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt… that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:27-36). Abel was the first martyr in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, and Zechariah the last one.

The generation of Jews addressed by the Lord Jesus filled the measure of their fathers’ iniquities to the brim. They did not protest when Herod killed John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus strongly denounced them for not having accepted and believed this great prophet (Matt. 21:25). After that, they betrayed the Messiah and asked for His execution (Matt. 27:22). Then, they stoned Stephen, who was the first martyr of the Messiah’s church. In a long speech, Stephen reminded the leaders of the sins and rebellion of their forefathers (Acts 6:8–7:60). He likened those who killed the prophets to the leaders of his time who insisted on the death of the Messiah, and also accused them of resisting and rejecting the Holy Spirit: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:51-52). The judgements of God came upon them.

In AD 70, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the surviving Jews taken captive, thereby initiating their international dispersion to all nations (Luke 21:20,24) – a situation that would prevail until the last generation of the Christian dispensation. Only then would the unsaved Jews return to their land – as indeed happened since 1948 – while heading for times of great distress before the Messiah will come to save the remnant of the nation. God’s call to a national repentance in Zechariah’s time will then be fully heeded.

3. A message of restoration (8:1-17)

While chapter 7 resembles the call to repentance in 1:2-6, as well as the severe consequences of not complying with this call, chapter 8 reflects the promised blessings pictured throughout the night visions (1:7–6:8), being the result of a genuine repentance and change of heart. The third and fourth messages describe the restoration from the Babylonian exile during the time of Zechariah as a precursor of future blessing in the millennial age. These future blessings will extend beyond Israel and refer to a time when righteousness, justice and peace will fill the earth.

God’s zeal on behalf of Zion (i.e. the people of Jerusalem) is strongly affirmed (8:2; cf. 1:14; Joel 2:18). That will lead to great blessings: “Thus says the LORD: I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem” (8:3). This promise will be fulfilled in the millennium after Christ returned to Jerusalem to rule from the throne of David (cf. Acts 15:16-17). “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, the Mountain of the LORD of hosts, the Holy Mountain” (8:3; cf. Isa. 2:2-3). It will be the capital of the world.

During that time, the whole remnant of Israel will be saved: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will save My people from the land of the east and the land of the west; I will bring them back, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. They shall be My people and I will be their God, in truth and righteousness” (8:7-8). In a similar prophecy recorded by Isaiah, God said: “I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… Since you were precious in My sight, you have been honoured, and I have loved you… Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your descendants from the east, and gather you from the west; I will say to the north, Give them up! and to the south, Do not keep them back!” (Isa. 43:3-6).

The saved remnant of Israel will be prosperous in the land (8:11-12). They will also be a blessing to all the nations of the world (8:13; cf. Rom. 11:12). Although God is a God of righteousness who punishes sin, He is also a God of profound love and mercy who wants to forgive and restore: “Just as I determined to punish you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath, says the LORD of hosts, and I would not relent, so again in these days I am determined to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear” (8:14-15).

4. A message of rejoicing (8:18-23)

The Lord waited until this moment to reply to the question raised by the Bethel delegates on whether they should continue to fast and weep in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (7:2-3). God said that the fasts would become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals (8:19). Two additional fasts are included which were not previously mentioned (cf. 7:3,5) – one on the 10th day of the 10th month to remember the commencement of the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1-2; Jer. 39:1), and one on the 9th day of the 4th month to recall the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar when the city wall was breached (2 Kings 25:3-4; Jer. 39:2). These fasts were all self-imposed and had been observed for 70 years with sorrowful hearts and wrong, selfish motives (cf. 7:5-7).

However, the fasts were not terminated in Zechariah’s time and are still observed – even to this day. The prospects for the near future, during the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7), are that even more feasts will be turned into fasts (12:10-14; cf. Amos 8:10). But then, after the Messiah has come again in power and glory to fully restore Israel and Jerusalem, the fasts will be turned into feasts to reflect the joy of Israel’s spiritual cleansing and the Messiah’s millennial reign. So, there will come a time when Israel will no longer remember and weep over the disasters of the past but celebrate joyful feasts to the honour of their Saviour (cf. Isa. 61:2-3; 65:18-19).

The glory of the Messiah will shine far beyond Israel and illuminate the entire world, “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). But the Messiah’s glory will be manifested so profound by the Israeli people that all the nations will notice it and desire to share in their blessings:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, let us continue to go and pray before the LORD, and seek the LORD of hosts. I myself will go also. Yes, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD… In those days ten men from every language  of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (8:20-23).

Jeremiah confirms this wonderful future of Jerusalem: “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the Name of the LORD, to Jerusalem; they shall walk no more after the stubbornness of their evil heart” (Jer. 3:17; cf. Micah 4:1-3). This wonderful time will only dawn after the Second Coming of the Messiah when He will set foot on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (14:4-5).