Forum Class for October 3, 2004

God's People Then and Now (Zechariah 7-8)

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE THE PEOPLE OF GOD (Zechariah 7:1-8:23): The second main block of Zechariah's prophecy is contained in chapters 7 and 8. These two chapters contain some of the most succinct statements of what all the prophets had been trying to say. The messages contained within these chapters were prompted by questions posed by a delegation sent to Jerusalem, presumably from the town of Bethel (twelve miles north of Jerusalem). The NKJV does not identify the town as "Bethel" (except in the margin), but says only that the delegation was coming "to the house of God" (v. 2). Others identify the site with a compound, proper name, "Bethel-Sharezer," for which there is a Babylonian equivalent from the relevant time period. Unlike the town of Bethel, Bethel-Sharezer was a considerable distance from Jerusalem, and this distance could have been the reason for the three-and-a-half-month delay between the fast commemorating the destruction of the temple, which occurred in the fifth month and seventh day (2 Kings 25:8), and the arrival of the delegation in the ninth month on the fifth day (7:1). However, there could have been other reasons for the delegation's delay, and our preference is to view the delegation as a Jewish delegation from the city of Bethel.

The messages in these chapters were also occasioned by the fact that the people needed guidance on whether they were to continue to observe the fasts connected with the tragic events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem. Verse 3 of chapter 7 raises the question about continuing the fast commemorating the destruction of the house of God in the fifth month, seventh day (c. August 7th), and 8:19 asks whether the people should continue to observe three other fast days, viz., (1) the Breaching of the walls, in the 4th month, 9th day (Jer. 39:2), (2) the Murder of Governor Gedaliah, in the 7th month (2 Kings 25:25; Jer. 41:1-2), and (3) the Beginning of the Siege of Jerusalem, in the 10th month, 10th day (2 Kings 25:1-2; Jer. 39:1).

Interestingly enough, God had only commanded that the people observe one fast day--Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement" (Lev. 16:29; 23:27,29, 32). The people had increased their burden by adding four more days. This is so true to life. We religionists often fail to get it straight; we either go overboard on one side or on the other!

Chapters seven and eight are best divided on the basis of the recurring quotation formulae. These will show that chapters seven and eight have four major paragraphs: 7:4-7; 7:8-14; 8:1-17; and 8:18-23. The formula in each of the four paragraphs that functions as a marker is 'Then the word of the LORD [of hosts] came." Naturally, 7:1-3 serves as an introduction. The delegation from Bethel poses the question: "Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?" (7:3). Since the temple was almost complete, it was very natural to ask about the proper method of worship there. It is worth noting that once the reality has come, the commemoration of a past event is somewhat passé in the thinking of the people. That should help us answer the similar question whether there will be sacrifices as memorials in the millennial temple when the Lamb of God is present!

A second set of recurrent quotation formulae that divide these paragraphs into sub-paragraphs is "Thus says the LORD [of hosts]" (7:9; 8:2,3,4,6,7,9,14,19,20,23).

One last observation is worth noting before we begin our exposition of the chapters. Chapter seven records the negative side of the issue and concludes with Israel being scattered among the nations, while chapter eight focuses on the positive side, concluding with the nations grasping for the robe of the Jews so that they might go up to Jerusalem with them. Chapters seven and eight, like the texts beginning at 1:1 and 1:8, have as their date line "the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev" (7:1), December 7, 518 B.C., on our Julian calendars. The chapters give us snatches from Zechariah's sermons as he urges God's people not to substitute empty formalism for the reality of the living presence of the Lord of glory. Zechariah gives us the answers to four questions which, in turn, reveal four characteristics of what it means to be the people of God, both in Zechariah's day and in our own. The four questions, which form our teaching and preaching outline, are:

A. Are We Serving Ourselves or God? 7:4-7
B. Are We Listening To Ourselves or God? 7:8-14
C. Are We Believing a Lie or the Truth? 8:1-17
D. Are We Ready for the Future? 8:18-23

ARE WE SERVING OURSELVES OR GOD? (7:4-7): "In the fourth year of King Darius" (7:1; 518 B.C.), things were looking much better for the returned exiles. Every impediment to building the temple had been removed by Darius's royal decree (Ezra 6). Homes were being built (Hag. 1:4). Life seemed to be returning to normal.

Still something seemed to be wrong. A delegation of two prominent men, with some attendants, was sent from the former calf-worshiping center of the former Northern Israel, i.e., from Bethel. The lessons of the destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C. had not been lost on these sensitive souls. The dispute that raged from 931 to 722 B.C. as to whether the Jews should worship in Jerusalem had been resolved. Jerusalem was the legitimate place to worship. The delegation came, in fact, "to pray before the LORD" (v. 7:2c) "and to ask the priests who were in the house of the LORD of hosts " (v. 7:3) about whether they should continue to fast now that the temple had almost been completed. The word for "to pray" was literally "to stroke [or smooth] the face of the LORD," i.e., "to entreat" Him urgently.

The fifth month, Hebrew Ab (August), will live forever in infamy in the hearts and minds of Israel. It was on August 9th, 587 B.C., that Jerusalem was finally taken and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. According to the Talmud, it was also the day when God decreed that the people in the wilderness should not enter the land because of their unbelief. Further, it was the day on which not only the first, or Solomonic, temple was destroyed, but the second temple was destroyed by the Romans. Moreover, it was the day on which the city of Bethar was taken under Bar Kokbah (A.D. 135), only to fall in turn into Gentile hands who put everyone to death including Bar Kokbah, the messianic pretender in the second Christian century. Finally, on that day, August 9th, wicked Turnus Rufus plowed up the hill of the sanctuary and thus fulfilled Micah's prophecy, "Zion shall be plowed as a field."

Implicit in the delegation's question about fasting is another question: Will God honor His promises to raise up the nation of Israel once again, as the earlier prophets had predicted, or what should we expect? The answer given is practically identical to the call for repentance in the introduction to the book (Zech. 1:1-6).

The Word of the Lord came to the prophet with this response to the people: "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?" (vv. 5b-6). Clearly, ritual in and of itself can be, and in this case was, little more than empty formalism that satisfied only the people's selfish interests.

It is a false notion that abstaining from food and mourning over God's past acts of judgment are necessarily meritorious. It is possible to use fasting and mourning as a way of calling attention to ourselves, instead of to God. True fasting and mourning are outward signs of genuine inward grief and a decision to repent of sin. Self imposed religious acts, not prescribed in Scripture, are merely self-glorifying. They are expressions of our preoccupations with ourselves and our own importance. God's antidote for such egocentrism is this: "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

"Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?" (v. 7). Isaiah, one of the former prophets, had dealt with the topic of fasting. The people of the eighth century B.C. complained: '''Why have we fasted: they say, 'and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls and You take no notice?'" (Isa. 58:3). But if they wished to have a fast, Isaiah advised, here was one for them: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help your relatives, loose those fraudulent contracts you forced others into, let the oppressed go free; there's a "fast" if you want one. But that was not the sort of thing they were hoping God would say. Isaiah's point, and the point of this text, is that if we want to serve God rather than ourselves, there is a proper set of priorities to observe: obedience takes precedence over sacrifices; walking humbly with God is more important than scores of rituals (1 Sam. 15:22-23; Mic. 6:6-8). Therefore, let us not waste a lot of time and motion. Let us return to the true and tested paths first set out by the former prophets. There just is no substitute for heart righteousness; all religious acts must flow out of a genuine response of faith and obedience to God, or they are merely self-serving, self-glorifying and, consequently, self-condemning.

ARE WE LISTENING TO OURSELVES OR GOD? (7:8-14): Have we heard the message of the former prophets yet? Zechariah conveys the substance of Isaiah 58:6-12 in verses 9-10. He urges: "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" (v. 9-10).

Even though our prior duty to God is presumed, our duty to our neighbor is set forth as a test of the genuineness of our commitment to God. This is not a so-called "social gospel," for the gospel is addressed first and foremost to individuals, but the gospel surely has social implications or it would not be the powerful Word of God that Scripture portrays it to be.

Neglect of the duties listed in verses 9-10 leads to a society that has gone dead towards God. In such an insensitive society there is no fair and just administration of justice, no demonstration of mercy and compassion for weak and hurting individuals, no looking out for widows, orphans, aliens or the poor, and no end of conjuring up ways of doing evil. Instead, there is simply a "dog-eat-dog" mentality in the business world, the domestic scene, and the ecclesiastical realm. In effect, society says "down with the fetus," "down with the victim of crimes," "down with the oppressed." What a tragic state of affairs. No one is listening: "But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear" (v. 11). Surely this says it all. They refused to listen!

They pulled away the shoulder, a body language sign of rejection (cf. Neh. 9:29) and, literally, they "made their ears heavy" (cf. Isa. 6:10: "Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy."). "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" (v. l2ab). In Jeremiah 17:1, this hard stone is rendered a "diamond." What a waste of the prophet's and God's revelation!

One result of such adamant spirits and stopped-up ears was that when "[the people] called out" in prayer, the Lord said He "would not listen" (v. 13bc) to their requests! This should not have come as a surprise, for Isaiah had taught the same truth in Isaiah 58:9--only when the people obeyed would God say "Here I am" when they called out to Him in prayer. Perhaps this is the reason why in our own day so few of some people's prayers are answered!

Another result was that Israel was" scattered among all the nations" (v. 14). Leviticus 26:14-43 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68 had warned about precisely such a result, but Israel had maintained her adamant behavior with a deaf ear to the commands of God "till there was no remedy" (2 Chron. 36:16). Sadly, on the last page of the Bible (in the Hebrew order of the canon) is this note: "But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chron. 36:16). How important it is to listen to God and the words He has sent through His apostles and prophets.

ARE WE BELIEVING A LIE OR THE TRUTH? (8:1-17): The bad memories of past acts of disobedience gradually faded and were replaced by an expectation of hope for the future. Though Zechariah speaks of judgment where he needs to, he does not play that string to the exclusion of all others. In this text God reveals to Zechariah what He will do beyond the painful realities of the present. The ten occurrences of the formula "Thus says the LORD [of hosts]" (8:2, 3,4,6,7,9, 14, 19, 20, 23) divide the text into sub themes--perhaps a potpourri of themes from a number of Zechariah's messages given over the years. In our discussion of the text we have expressed each of the sub themes as a question.

1. Do we believe that God's zeal for His promise to Israel and His hot anger against the nations that oppress her are still controlling facts of life? (8:1-2). God declares to Zechariah: "I am zealous for Zion with great zeal; with great fervor I am zealous for her" (v. 2). The Hebrew word qin'ah can be rendered "zealousness" or "jealousness." "Zeal" is an aspect of God's internal intensity and the passion that He brings to everything that He does and says. Of course, our Lord was not jealous in the sense that we use that word today--our Lord was not a green-eyed monster--for of what and whom would our Lord need to be jealous? Everything anyone has comes from Him and, ultimately, is His--in that sense, in this text it is better to translate qin'ah as "zealousness"; the Lord was zealous for His name, reputation, and mission.

God had announced His zeal for Jerusalem in 1:14; He was zealous because He had given His covenantal promise that He would be faithful to what He had promised to do. Unfortunately, however, when the Lord was but "a little angry" (1:15) with Israel and used her enemies to punish her, her enemies exceeded their divine orders and showed no mercy on Israel. God judged those nations; so what will He do to modern nations that engage in the same type of excess?

2. Do we believe that God will return to dwell in Jerusalem? (8:3). God's anger against the nations that oppress Israel will by no means be the end of the matter. "I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem" (v. 3ab). As we have discussed in 1:16 and 2:10, God had promised that He would come down to live personally in Jerusalem, fulfilling the third part in the tri-partite formula, "I will be your God, you shall be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of you." In that coming day when Messiah would rule and reign from "the midst of Jerusalem," "Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, the Mountain of the LORD of hosts, the Holy Mountain" (v. 3cde). Because He is the God of Truth, the city where He would reign--Jerusalem--would finally be known as the "City of Truth." This title is appropriate as well because "The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness and speak no lies" (Zeph. 3:13). The mountain of Jerusalem is "holy" because of the Lord's holy presence there and because "HOLINESS" will be on the hearts and foreheads of all who reside there in that future day (Zech. 14:20-21).

3. Do we believe Jerusalem will be repopulated? (8:4-5). Two groups of people, frequently overlooked--"Old men and old women" and "boys and girls" (v. 4a, 5c)--will be able to live in Jerusalem once again without fear of being mugged or abused, or of being victimized by a criminal or pervert. The fact that the men and women are described as old indicates that the text is speaking of another day and age, when there will be peace, security, and the sound of children enjoying their play in the streets. Elizabeth Achtemeier quips, "God's kingdom will not have come on this earth until its streets are fit for its children." But by the same token, it will not have come until its children are fit for its streets."

4. Do we believe it is too difficult for God to bring back a full remnant? (8:6). The Hebrew word pala rendered "it is marvelous" in verse 6 is a magnificent word with a rich history of associations and a deep theological heritage. It is one of the titles Isaiah used for the Son who was to be born in the Davidic line. His name was to be "Wonderful." It means the One who does "difficult things," or "miraculous" or "hard" tasks. The same Hebrew word was used in Genesis 18:14, where God quizzed Abraham on why it was that Sarah, who was ninety years of age and in menopause, laughed when she and her 100-year-old husband were told they were going to bear a son? "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" The word was used, too, in Jeremiah. Jeremiah was told to buy some land just as the Babylonians were about to close in on and capture the land. Jeremiah affirmed, "there is nothing too hard for the LORD" (32:17). Later the Lord asked Jeremiah: "Is anything too hard for Me?" (32:26).

"Will it also be marvelous in My eyes [or too hard for Me]" (v. 6b)? No, it will not be too marvelous or too hard for the Lord! He will bring back His people to the land of Palestine, though most Christians think it will be something too difficult even for God to do.

5. Do we believe the restored remnant will come from all over the world? (8:7-8). Verses 7 and 8 contain perhaps the most succinct yet comprehensive statement in all of Scripture on the fact that God is intending to restore Israel to her land. "Behold, I will save My people," Zechariah announces. They will come from "the land of the east" and 'from the land of the west," and God "will bring them back, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem." East and west function here as a figure of speech known as a merism (cf. Ps. 50:1; 113:3; Mal. 1:11); the remnant shall come from all over the earth.

Then the tri-partite formula discussed, earlier will be realized: "They shall be My people and I will be their God." To be God's own people and to be betrothed to Him forever was the great dream of the prophets and of the covenant itself (e.g., Hos. 2:19-20; Jer. 32:38-41).

Some commentators dispute the notion that the restored remnant will come from all over the world, noting that the world's present population of over fourteen million Jews would not all fit into Jerusalem. But, we note in response, there are modem cities with populations approaching or, in the case of Mexico City, exceeding that number. Further, the correct interpretation of verse 8 may be that Jerusalem will be the place where the people's worship will be centered, not where they will actually reside. Finally, the reference in verse 8 to Jerusalem may be a figure of speech called a synecdoche, wherein a part is used for the whole; i.e., the city of Jerusalem may stand for the whole land.

In that marvelous day of return, "truth" and "righteousness" would characterize the relationship between God and His people. In the past, only God was truthful and righteous, but now His people would be as well. Surely, that is a different day!

6. Do we believe God will give the increase? (8:9-13). Verses 9-13 contain a practical application of the promises about the future set forth in 8:1-8 that would give comfort to all.

God's encouraging words "Let your hands be strong" (v. 9) are similar to those Haggai gave in Haggai 2:4: "Now be strong," or "Be of good courage." These words are an idiom more frequently used in exhortations for those going into battle (Judg. 7:11; 2 Sam. 2:7; 16:21). The basis for this encouragement was the words God had given "by the mouth of the prophets" (v. 9d; cf. 1:4; 7:7, 12). Zechariah refers in particular to the prophets who spoke "in the day that the foundation was laid for the house of the LORD of hosts" (v. 9ef). Since Ezra 3 mentions no other prophets that were ministering during such time, this reference may well be to the message of Haggai (1:6-11; 2:15-19).

Like Haggai (1:6), God contrasts conditions at a time "before these days" (v. 10a)--i.e., before the days when the people heard the words of the prophets--with conditions "now" (v. 11a). In the earlier days, when the Samaritans were bitter foes of the returned exiles (Ezra 4:15), there was no stability, security, or prosperity for man or beast. But in spite of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, and their conspiracies, God would "now. . . treat the remnant of this people as in the former days" (v. 11ab). Repentance alone had provided the grounds for God to reverse the adverse conditions this fledgling community of returned exiles had experienced for so long.

Again like Haggai (2:19), Zechariah proclaims that prosperity of the soil would follow genuine repentance and turning to God (v. 8:12). There is a connection, begun in the Garden of Eden, between the sin of mankind and the decreased productivity of the land. In the Garden of Eden, creation was subjected to bondage and waits for its release when our Lord returns the second time (Rom. 8:20-22). Nevertheless, in times of repentance and turning to the Lord, God can bring substantial healing even to the created order. That is what He promises in verse 12 to do for the spiritually revived remnant. Using a "just as"/"so" construction (cf. Zech. 1:6; 7:13), verse 13 offers another comparison of the past and the future. While in the recent past the nations of Israel and Judah had been "a curse among the nations," God would "save [them], and [make them] a blessing." Significantly, God's promise is addressed to both Israel and Judah, not to the returned Judahites alone (v. 13b); like Ezekiel 37:15-22, which pictured the reunion of the divided kingdom, so Zechariah depicts one revived nation.

7. Do we believe God wants us to speak the truth, to render sound judgment, and not to plot evil against our neighbor? (8:14-17). In what appears to be another outline of a sermon, in this text Zechariah first tells what God proposes to do (vv. 14-15), then tells what God expects His people to do (vv. 16-17).

Using another "just as"/"so" construction (v. 14a, 15a), the Lord contrasts His past use of punishment (e.g., the exile that God had "determined" [v. 14] ever since Moses' day should the people disobey. Deut. 28:38-41; Jer. 4:28; 51:12) with His plan and determination "to do good to Jerusalem" (v. 15). Jeremiah had taught the same truth: "Just as I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will bring on them all the good that I have promised them" (Jer. 32:42). And since God is not a man that He should back down on His promises (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29), the people could expect the "good" promised in verses 12-13.

In the meantime, God expected four deeds from the redeemed people: (1) "Speak each man the truth to his neighbor" (v. 16a). Since God is truth (Exod. 34:6), He expects no less than truth from His people in their daily dealings with each other (Ps. 15:2; Eph. 4:25); (2) Render sound judgments in the dispensing of justice everywhere (v. 16c). Corruption in the courts corrupts God's purpose in the world; (3) Keep your hearts pure by not indulging in vindictiveness or hatred against your neighbor (v. 17a). Once the inner dispositions give way, every conceivable act of violence and sin against our neighbor is possible. As Jesus taught, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matt. 15:19); and (4) "Do not love a false oath" (v. 17b). Falsified testimony against our neighbor is unacceptable to God because, once again, God is the God of truth. Referring to all four sins, the Lord says: "For all these are things that I hate" (v. 17c). These sins are listed in Proverbs 6:16-19 among the seven abominations that the Lord hates.

ARE WE READY FOR THE FUTURE? (8:18-23): This final section of chapter 8 depicts the joys God's people will experience in the future. Israel and Judah will be joined by many nations as Jerusalem becomes "the place to be" in that day. In the future God would turn the fasts that the people had devised on the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months-mournful times of self-denial--into times of "joy and gladness and cheerful feasts" (v. 19ef; see our comments on 7:1-3). Therefore, the Lord desires that His people espouse and value "truth and peace" above all else (v. 19g). The fruit of benefiting from God's promises should be righteousness, truth, love, and peace. His promises about the future should provide the incentive to live a holy life in the present.

Also in the future there would come a great turning to the Lord, as was predicted in Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-5. The number of people who would turn to the Lord is significantly large ("many peoples," v. 22a), and people would view the matter of turning to the Lord as urgent enough to demand immediate attention ("let us continue to go," or better translated, "let us go at once," v. 21b).

The people from every nationality will travel to Jerusalem to "seek the LORD of hosts" (v. 21c). That Jerusalem will be the center of worship in that future day can be seen as well in Isaiah 66:20, Micah 4:1-2, and Ezekiel 40-44.

So intense will be the desire of all the people of the earth to join the revived Jewish nation in the worship of the Living God "in those days" (as contrasted with "these days," 8:23, d. 8:9, 15) that "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'" (v. 23). The number "ten" is used here as an indefinite number signifying a large multitude. The Gentiles will clutch on to the robes of any Jew whom they can find and beg him to let them go along with him as they go up to worship God. The Gentiles will be this persistent and intense because they will have finally heard that the ancient promise that God made to His people is true. Indeed, God is with His people (Gen. 21:22; 26:3, 24; Exod. 3:12; Josh. 1:5; Isa. 45:14).

CONCLUSION: What God wants from His people is authenticity. Too often we serve only ourselves, rather than the Lord. Too frequently we listen only to what we wish to hear, with little or no care for what God is saying. It is sometimes much easier to fulfill the outward demands of formal and ritualistic worship than it is to prepare for these acts by coming with a pure heart and an inner disposition that responds to God's grace. Where there is all form, function, and routine, invariably there is no joy, no heart-felt involvement, and no true worship of the Living God.

God hates substitutes for the real thing as much as (and even more than) our generation hates substitutes for natural foods. Therefore, it is wrong to think that mere attendance at God's house can substitute for a personal holiness as the proper preparation for meeting God. It is likewise wrong to substitute ceremonial observances for obedience to God as a basis for those acts of religious ritual that will follow. It is wrong to substitute mere possession of God's Word, or even knowledge of that Word, for a genuine response to what that word teaches.

God wants us to love truth and peace. If we do, we shall enjoy the marvelous works that He predicts will follow in those days and events surrounding His second coming.

From Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Communicator's Commentary: Micah-Malachi, Word Books, Dallas, 1992.

On line Commentary on Zechariah by Eugene H. Merrill