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Text – Zechariah 7
As I was preparing today’s lesson, I got furiously angry at the people in Zechariah 7, cheered for God in his response, and then felt convicted because I have been in the past, and am today, one of the people in Zechariah 7. Today we are going to look at the marks of worthless religion, of traditional ritualism, and how much it makes God mad. Our audience of Zechariah 7 today are on the receiving end of even more anger because not only are they doing religion wrongly, but they are ignoring the words of prophets who had preached before the exile.
So, instead of reading Zechariah 7 first, let’s go to before the exile, to Isaiah 58. Isaiah was preaching about 150 years before Zechariah; he predicted both the exile and the return, he named Cyrus by name as the king of Persia who would save the Israelites from Babylon.
Isaiah 58:3-11 'Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?' Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.' If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
The point of this passage is that the Israelites ask God, “Why isn’t our fasting and humiliation impressing you?” God gives them the reason that their fast is marred by their bad motives and actions, they are beating their employees during the fast, they are in bitterness towards their friends during the fast, and they are fasting not for the sake of God, but for their sake. Basically, they are saying, God, I really really really really want something, so I’m going to do something for you so you’ll do it for me. There is so much wrong with this it’s tragic, because it elevates our own understanding of what we need above God’s, and turns God into our divine butler or puppet.
God tells them that what he wants is not a fast, but action done in love. He says that when these things are accomplished that the people will be greatly blessed by what he knows they need, not what they think they need. Basically this whole scripture can be summed up by what Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” I love one of the illustrations that God uses here in Isaiah 58, that a people who love others will be so blessed that even when they are depressed, they will still be happier than anyone else on earth.
Hey look, a rabbit trail, let’s follow it. God is angry in Isaiah 58 and in Zechariah 7 because the only reason people are repenting is for themselves, not because it’s the right thing to do or because they love God and others. Imagine a husband and wife, how well do you think the relationship is going to go if the only time they do something nice for each other is when they want something from the other? Is that love at all? A husband should be doing nice things for his wife because he loves her, whether he gets anything out of it or not, and so should the wife do nice things because she loves her husband, not just to get him to buy her stuff.
So should be your relationship with your parents, so with your friends, so with God. Really the only reason I prepare lessons and teach you guys and care about your lives is so you’ll grow up and get really good jobs and become ridiculously rich and then hopefully send me a massive check as thanks, or mention my name so that some publisher calls me and offers me a massive book deal… Wow, that would be the worst motive ever, it would be all about me and not about you or God at all; my wrong motive would utterly wreck any benefit I may be expecting to receive, even if the teaching is good it doesn’t make God love me anymore. The true reason I teach this class is first and foremost because God said if I love him, to feed and tend his lambs; not take care of his lambs and then he’ll love me, no he loved me long before I loved him by sending his Son to die on a cross for me. The second reason I teach this class is because I love you and want to see you grow up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, proclaiming the excellencies of him who called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light.
Are you seeing that God is pretty upset with people who only do things to get blessings in return? This is going to be the major point of Zechariah 7, so let’s read it; this is two years after chapter 6, a lot has happened, Jerusalem is becoming a very godly place, the temple is well on the way to completion, God is dwelling in their midst, and blessings are well on their way. But we’re going to see some punks from Bethel who are utterly missing the point,
Zechariah 7:1-14 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men to entreat the favor of the LORD, saying to the priests of the house of the LORD of hosts and the prophets, "Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?" Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me: "Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? Were not these the words that the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous, with her cities around her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited?" And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart." But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. "As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear," says the LORD of hosts, "and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate."
So here’s what happened, Bethel is a city about a day’s walk north of Jerusalem. The people had probably gone into the exile and only recently returned, though if they hadn’t been exiled, they would have been in a great depression for the time of the exile. At this point they have been thoroughly chastened, corrected, for their wrong beliefs before the exile. They come to pray and ask a question of God, and unfortunately we’re going to see that they’ve learned nothing.
v.3 "Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?"
They are speaking of July 7th, the day of remembrance for the destruction of the temple in 586BC. For 70 years now they have been fasting every July 7th in sorrow for the destruction of the temple, but now that the temple is well on its way to being rebuilt, they want to know if they can stop weeping and fasting. God doesn’t answer this question, because really they had no command to weep and fast to start with, they had invented a religious ritual which they felt would bribe God.
v.4-6 Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me: "Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?”
God asks two questions, the first is, “What were your motives in fasting, were they for me?” and the second, “When you were living your lives, were they for you or for me?” Look at it this way, it’s like if we go to church on Sunday and give lip service to God, but on Monday through Saturday, we live like there is no God, and yet we say, “God, you owe me because I went to church on Sunday.” That’s what these punks from Bethel were doing.
I want to give you the first application here, though it’s going to be reiterated in a bit, but because Christ is our righteousness and our rest (Sabbath), we honor and live for him every day, not to earn something, but because he is worthy. Let’s look at a group of people in the New Testament who were doing it wrong,
Philippians 3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
I want to make sure you see that this problem is not just a new problem, it’s not just an old problem, but it is a long running and growing problem that has existed for millennia and will seek to sneak into your life today; the way we kill it is by recognizing the majesty of God, and by reading his Word about what God wants.
v.7 Were not these the words that the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous, with her cities around her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited?"
The major former prophet that God is referring to here is definitely Isaiah in chapter 58 which we read earlier, but it’s also Ezekiel, and Hosea, and Jeremiah, and Micah, let’s read the Micah verse:
Micah 6:6-8 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
This sounds a lot like the greatest commandment, doesn’t it?
Mark 12:29-31 Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Yet the people are radically misunderstanding God’s commandments and thinking that God needs and wants them to do weird things in order for him to give them good things, namely Heaven. This is alive and well in EVERY religion except for pure Christianity. Catholics believe that if you walk in Fatima on your knees, you earn merit, Eastern Orthodox Catholics believe by looking at old stuff that belonged to saints they are making God happy, Muslims believe by reciting a rote prayer five times a day, they are pleasing God, and Hindus believe by being nice to people, they will earn a greater state in their next life.
Impure Christianity believes that God wants you to pray a prayer and ask Jesus into your heart in order for you to go to Heaven. This is none more than ritual and it is exactly what these unrepentant people from Bethel were doing. You don’t go to Heaven by praying the sinner’s prayer, if you go to Heaven you go because Jesus Christ has paid your debt and given you his righteousness and he has received all of the glory for saving you; therefore you trust in him because it is the right thing to do. Beloved, in reality, if you place your faith in Jesus Christ and his righteousness is credited to you, then your ultimate destination is Heaven, even if you sat around and never did another thing. However, because Christ is worthy to be obeyed, and we obey him because we love him, we will go out and do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. Not to earn his merit, which we’ve already received through Christ, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Similarly, there are a huge number of false teachers saying that in order to get closer to Christ, you must pray and read the Bible. These are no better than Pharisees and legalists, and they have neither part nor lot in the kingdom of Christ. We who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. We now pray and read our Bibles because we are near, not to become near. We honor Christ as holy by knowing his Word and sharing our faith, but again if we just sat around, we would not lose our nearness.
Final example, a few weeks ago I was driving to church with Tyler and we passed a broken down motorcycle. Tyler said, “We should stop.” I didn’t want to, and by doing so, it didn’t improve my relationship with Christ, but because it was the right thing to do, we stopped and found out the guy was fine and his friend was coming to pick him up. Any other religion would say that by doing this, it brought me nearer to Heaven, but beloved the true reason I did it is because I’m already IN the kingdom of Heaven, you can’t be any nearer there already in it, it was earned for me 2,000 years ago on a cross and three days later through an empty tomb.
Here is God’s response to those who want to earn God’s love through doing weird things, telling them rather to love him and people instead of ritual.
v.8-10 And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."
Every religion besides Christianity fails to do this, and so are worthless, even though some Christians fail to do this, check out what James says,
James 1:26-27 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The law of God can be summed up in one word: love. If you love someone, you won’t lie to them, you won’t steal from them, you won’t murder them, you won’t tell them to follow something besides God, you won’t use their name as a curse word. True religion is both avoiding sin and doing right; here God tells these false believers to do right, and they don’t like it, let’s look at their response, it makes me SOOOOO mad!
v.11-12 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets.
They refused, they didn’t want God’s love unless they could earn it, they turned away, they plugged their ears, they hardened their hearts to the consistency of diamond so that they would not have to submit to God. They refused to hear the Word of God, and check this out, it says that his Spirit was the one speaking through the prophets. As angry as I am, look at God’s response,
v.13 Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. “As he called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear," says the LORD of hosts,”
Before we look at this, check this out real quick, in Zechariah we have the Trinity. We have Christ as the messenger of God, we have God the Father, and we have the Holy Spirit here speaking through the prophets. God says, “As the Spirit called...” He refers to the Spirit as a person here, it’s awesome. Come to Pneuma in November to learn more about the Person of the Holy Spirit.
God is furious, so because the people would not hear his Word, he promises not to hear their words. This is reminiscent of a man with worthless religion who died and went to Hell, turn to Luke 16, let’s read 26-31,
Luke 16:26-31 Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'
God’s Word is God’s Word to us, it is how he speaks, for in times past he spoke in many ways to the prophets, but in these last days he speaks only through his Son, the Word. Jesus says that if any has ears to hear, let him hear; so beloved, today, hear the Word of God and forsake worthless religion, don’t rely on ritual, but rely on Christ and when he makes you born again, see that faith in him is genuine because it brings forth fruit keeping with repentance. The Bible says there are two types of religious people, people who are sorry because their sin has hurt them, and those who are sorry because their sin has offended God and hurt others.
2 Corinthians 7:10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
Let your repentance be from and towards Heaven, so that you love God and love your neighbor, seeking to do things that will lead others to Christ not to earn his favor, but because you already have his favor, and you love him and wish to keep his commands. The last verse of Zechariah would cause me to rejoice in God’s justice, if it weren’t pointed at me. Beloved I have utterly sinned against Heaven, no doubt that God should punish me a hundred times worse than we are going to see in a moment, but a true repentance is one that can say, “God, for your glory sending me to Hell would be justified, I deserve it for blaspheming your name, for misrepresenting your character, for failing to love you and my neighbor, and for causing so much damage through my sin.” So as we read this last verse, I know it should be me, and beloved, it should be you too, but we have a grace from God which will be revealed more fully next week,
v.14 "and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate."
Fortunately for us, though we should be included in these people, desiring to earn God’s favor, he has transformed us from children of the darkness into sons and daughters of the day. He has taken our diamond hardened heart and replaced it with a heart that loves him,
Ezekiel 36:26-27 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
The neat part is that verse 28 will be quoted in chapter 13 pointing it definitely at God’s people. So beloved, forsake worthless religion, don’t do rituals because you think God wants you to do rituals or because you think it will earn you something. Rather know why you’re doing things, do them out of love and out of a renewed heart, do them because they are the right thing to do and they glorify Christ, whether you get anything out of them at all. And beloved, the great irony is that if you do nice things not expecting to get anything out of it, then you will get a huge amount out of it.
Proverbs 11:23-25 The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath. One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
This Proverb says that as you give then you will receive, if you hide things for yourself you will lose them, but of course this has to be done in the motive that if you receive nothing in return, you won’t feel bad for rightly representing your King, for ultimately his glory should be your reward. These things will always be keeping in the will of Christ, don’t expect to give a dollar and get back ten, rather give freely and be repaid bountifully in blessings.
And finally, we started this with fasting, let’s conclude it with fasting, should we give God one day out of thirty in a fast, and eat and live for ourselves the rest of the days? Or should we give thanks to God in all circumstances and fast and eat for his glory, loving people for Christ’s name’s sake, and pointing everyone towards the goodness and mercy of God? Let’s let Paul answer this one:
1 Corinthians 10:31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.