If we take these series of verses out of context, they still hold together well and teach us that ‘Repentance’ is a pre-requisite of a move of God within any people or, with reference to Revivals, that the Lord must convict His people of their sin to purify a people who will be clean before Him before He is able to use them to perform any great and mighty work.
Certainly, Revivals throughout Church History seem singularly to have required repentance on the part of God’s people before anything major has happened both in them and through them - but it is not always the first thing that God does with His people before He uses them to begin to fulfil His purpose.
Zechariah’s words to the nation of Israel here, then, could serve as a fitting initial word to God’s people to leave behind the errors and sins of the past, to turn themselves around and to return to Him with unswerving allegiance and commitment before He is willing to do anything with His people - but this is simply not the case.
Haggai has already called the people to wake up to the Lord’s timing for building the House of the Lord in Jerusalem (Haggai 1:1-11) and the people, under the leadership of both Zerubbabel and Jeshua have responded by beginning the work (1:12-15). Further, before Zechariah’s opening prophecy is given, calling the nation to repentance, God declares through Haggai (2:4-5) that the people should
‘...work, for I am with you...My Spirit abides among you; fear not’
In other words, God was already with the nation because they had responded positively to the word that He had spoken to them through His servant Haggai. The people had already set about performing the works of God and He was dwelling in their midst in order to make sure that they prospered in what He had commanded them.
These two prophecies had already been given when Zechariah stood up amongst the people and called the nation to repent before God, saying (Zech 1:3)
‘...Return to me...and I will return to you...’
Malachi was to use an identical phrase years later when he spoke to the nation of Israel (Mal 3:7), calling them back to observe the Mosaic Law through the proper giving of the tithe. In that book there is little, if anything, worthy of praise, so a straightforward call to repentance into good works is more likely rather than, as here in Zechariah, a call to repentance in their good works.
The point is an important one - we should not restrict God to have to call His people to repentance before He calls them to work for Him even though our experience of Church History may point us down that path. God is able to begin a work in the midst of the Church and have His people organise themselves to achieve it a significant time before He calls them to repentance for past errors and sins (in this case it was over two months since Haggai’s first prophetic word and just over a month since the people had recommenced the building work on the Temple after a sixteen year absence - and possibly only a few days since Haggai had spoken the prophecy of Haggai 2:4-5 though it could have been as much as four and a half weeks).
God may choose to begin to use a people in spite of their sin and not because they have repented of their sin. God may choose to begin to use a people in spite of who they are and not because of who they actually are. Again, it must come down to God’s choice, and we should be warned not to label any work of God in a presently unrepentant people as not of Him - rather, we should stand in awe that God chooses those who are still imperfect to fulfil His will and purpose.
There have been many moves of God in denominations and movements that have been slandered because of the state of the recipients’ lives before God. But, if the word of repentance comes to that fellowship or movement after God has begun to move through them, we should not undermine His work simply because it does not fit in with our concept of the way things should be done.
Simply speaking, the Temple that they are now building to house the presence of God amongst them (having been commanded by the Lord to do so through Haggai the prophet - Hag 1:1-11) will not contain God’s presence unless they choose to return to God - it’s their choice whether the success of their hands through the completion of the Temple (which is primarily a response to the Word of God) will know God’s presence taking up residence within it.
God reasons with the Israelites in this passage and recounts the facts which have led up to their current situation.
He begins by stating how His anger was kindled against their descendants (Zech 1:2), a summation of many various passages too numerous to mention here (some examples - II Kings 23:26, 24:20, II Chr 29:10, 30:8, 33:6, 34:25), a response to their sin of turning away from God to serve other gods and to reject the demands of God that they be righteous before Him (Deut 28:15-68 esp v.36).
Though the anger of God is a concept that flies in the face of much modern theology (usually because we are unable to conceive of a God of Love being a God who can be angry), it is a concept that runs throughout the pages of Scripture - that men and women who reject the Truth about God are objects of Divine wrath (Romans 1:18, John 3:36 - for more background on the wrath of God, how Jesus has averted this through His offering on the cross, and some objections to the concept considered and answered see my notes here).
The Israelites knew that God had been angry with their descendants and that they had rejected the message of the prophets who had been sent to them to draw them back to their God (Zech 1:4). The words here summate their past experience and no one prophecy is being referred to even though II Chr 36:15-16 does the same work of summation of the past history of the nation.
Zech 1:5-6 contrasts the finiteness of man with the sureness of the Words of God. Both prophet and inhabitant of the land have now passed away but what remains is a reminder that, although their fathers had rebelled against the Word of God delivered to them, they could not avoid what came to pass. There was no escape for a people who had continually attempted to flee away both from the presence of God and the covenant they’d made with Him.
JFB paraphrases the situation well as contained in these two verses (v.5-6) when they comment
‘Your fathers have perished as was foretold; and their fate ought to warn you. But you may say, “The prophets too are dead”. I grant it, but still My words do not die: though dead, their prophetical words from Me, fulfilled against your fathers, are not dead with them. Beware, then, lest ye share their fate’
Therefore, having seen all that had been prophesied come to pass and having found themselves consequently settled as resident exiles in a foreign land ‘they repented’ (Zech 1:6 - perhaps the context favours better the interpretation that they realised the errors of their ways rather than wholeheartedly turned around to serve the Lord their God as the word ‘repented’ implies?) and acknowledged that what they had reaped as judgment from God had been as a direct result of their ‘ways and deeds’.
God’s plea that His current listeners should (Zech 1:3)
‘...Return to Me...and I will return to you...’
is, then, based upon the experience of their fathers and the command to return is more a reminder not to choose to go their own way when the voice of God speaks through His servants but to listen, obey and observe all that He will instruct them.
God is bringing His people back to Him step by step - through the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple - but there will be more Words from God that need obeying and heeding in order that the people who have begun afresh their journey to follow God might find themselves being changed to be more like the One they profess to serve.
‘Don’t’ says the Lord to the Israelites ‘avoid what is inevitable if you want to experience My presence. Don’t make Me have to judge you as I did your fathers...’
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