ZECHARIAH 7 AND 8
Question and Answer
a. The relevance of the question
b. The questioners questioned
c. The root of the remembrance
d. The four great fasts
i. 4th month, 17th day
ii. 5th month, 9th day
iii. 7th month, 2nd day
iv. 10th month, 10th day
Past, Present and Future
a. The Past
b. The Present
c. The Future
The reader may be seriously wondering why I devoted ‘reams’ to individual prophecies in the first six chapters of the Book of Zechariah and yet, here, have only devoted the one web page to two whole chapters.
Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?
I mean, have I got bored with it all and am I trying to get to the end of Zechariah as quickly as possible?
No, certainly not!
I dealt with the visions and prophetic words which precede this in such a manner because, even though I went off at a tangent at some points, the passages were so small and stood as individual units that it was very easy to get back to the main thrust of the argument.
The reason why I’ve chosen to limit myself here, however, is because chapters 7 and 8 hold together as one specific prophecy given as a response to a question addressed to the prophet and I feel that to get as intricately involved as we did in earlier passages would be almost to obscure the main intention of the discourse - that is, to answer the question and to explain to the people of Israel why what they are continuing to do is not pleasing to the Lord.
There may be occasion when we will need to look at specific phrases (I do not yet know as I’ve got together most of what needs to be put down but not looked through it one final time to see if there are points that need addressing) but I shall try and keep these brief if at all possible so that we don’t lose the main thrust of the passage.
There are two main themes here which I will deal with after first trying to put the passage into some sort of context under the heading ‘Introduction’.
Under the heading ‘Question and Answer’, I will deal with (believe it or not) the question asked by certain Israelites of the priests and prophets and its relevancy, and then go on to explain the answer which actually occurs towards the end of the two chapters, just when you thought Zechariah was going to ignore it completely!
Then, secondly, under the heading ‘Past, Present and Future’, I will attempt to bring what Zechariah had to say to the people from the Lord under those three specific criteria and show how the Lord had something to say in each of these time areas, showing them their undistinguished history, urging them to make a better go of it in the present and promising them a great future if they would simply obey the voice of the Lord as He speaks to them (which it appears they didn’t).
That is all I will attempt to do and, in so doing, may miss some points and texts that readers may wish that I had addressed. But, judging by my preliminary notes on the following three chapters (9-11), there will be ample time for more comprehensive study which I don’t believe these two chapters warrant.
These two chapters are dated precisely (Zech 7:1) as occurring
‘In the fourth year of king Darius...the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev’
almost two years after the series of visions recorded as being given to the prophet which run 1:7-6:15 (see 1:7 for the precise date). Still to occur was the completion of the temple just over two years in the future (Ezra 6:15).
Commentators find it inconceivable, as previously mentioned, that the first series of visions and prophetic words should all have occurred on one day and that they were delivered on the same and so have come up with statements with which to speak of a compiler who brought together a series of Zechariah’s ‘sermons’ for inclusion as one unit.
I disagreed with that interpretation, finding no reason for such a literary style - besides, what Zechariah had recorded was what he felt was important for the exiles to know and it is quite possible that he felt that there was no reason to record any other vision that he saw in the next two year period (if he had any given to him, that is - we aren’t talking about visions dreamed up out of one’s own mind but revelations given by the Spirit of God as He chose).
When we come to this passage, though, we find the same sort of assertion, Smith noting that
‘Chapters 7 and 8 of Zechariah contain a collection of oracles and/or sermons [makes the prophet sound like some sort of church minister, doesn’t it? And, if the passage contains sermons, they seem to have been pretty short - now that’s my kind of preacher!!] from Zechariah probably arranged and adapted by an editor in the time of the Chronicler....The arrangement of the materials in chapters 7 and 8 is rough’
and, Baldwin, that
‘...the sermon material and collected sayings in the intervening sections [between 7:1-3 and 8:18-19] all have a bearing on the subject, though they were not necessarily all composed on this occasion’
One thing is sure - the passages here certainly do have a relevancy to the question brought to the priests and prophets in Jerusalem, probably the best indication that they were delivered at one and the same time and not put together by a later compiler who was scratching around the collected sayings of the prophet and trying to make some relevant amalgam of his utterances! Besides, it is not inconceivable that Zechariah had his prophetic words recorded so that the nation wouldn’t be allowed to forget them in years to come (or that they might be distributed to those of the nation not present when they were first delivered) - a word from God that so cut against the religious practice of the nation as this did must surely have been written down for closer scrutiny!
I see no reason, therefore, to presuppose a lengthy period for the delivery of this passage - besides, if we leave it as it reads, we realise that Zechariah appears to have been used only on five occasions to say things of such an importance that they had to be recorded (the passages starting 1:1, 1:7, 7:1, 9:1 and 12:1).
Perhaps we may like to think that all our words that we speak from day to day are of equal importance to the children of God? But it is only when God has something specific to say to people through us that He will make sure that His words are recorded for remembrance. Our ‘sermons’ may be of no interest whatever to the Lord except on those rare occasions (five times in the life of Zechariah) when God breathes through us to say something so radical that it confronts those who hear us.
There’s also much controversy over the exact meaning of verse 2 but I shan’t go in to a detailed discussion of the numerous possibilities here which are adequately (and extensively) covered by both Smith and Baldwin.
Both of these commentators believe that the delegation, recorded by the RSV as coming from Bethel, originated in Babylon. Initially, one wonders whether they’ve taken leave of their senses seeing as the translation I use makes not the slightest hint that the text has any problems at this point - but indeed it does, the place name ‘Bethel’ perhaps being a name rather than the town which was situated about ten miles north of Jerusalem.
The names of the men who come to ask the question are also Babylonian in origin, JFB translating the names as ‘Prefect of the Treasury’ and ‘The king’s official’ respectively. If that is the case, their names could be none other than titles and king Darius could even be the instrument behind their coming to the Temple!
A lot of the arguments by the commentators (and not just Smith and Baldwin) lack a certain credibility (for instance, the ‘proof’ that they came from Babylon because they would have set out at the start of the fifth month’s fast that they ask about, the journey would have taken three and a half months and so would have arrived in Jerusalem after this time which Zech 7:1 testifies to - or, another, that it wouldn’t have been significant had they come from Bethel as many people came up from this town so the name wouldn’t have been recorded, therefore proving that they must have come from Babylon!) and it is best to stand back from the text and simply say that it is the question they ask that is important and not the location from which the two messengers were sent.
Were they sent by the exiles still in Babylon? Or from king Darius himself? Or from the Judahite town of Bethel? Not one of these locations alters the weight and importance of the question which I shall deal with in the next section.
Question and Answer
Zech 7:3-7, 8:18-19
a. The relevance of the question
The Temple had begun to be built on the 24th day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius’ reign as king (Hag 1:1, 14-15) and it was now around two years later (Zech 7:1) that representatives are sent to Jerusalem to get the answer to a question concerning the religious observance of the Jewish people (it appears that this observance was not a local phenomena but a national one seeing as the answer to the question is contained within the passage which addresses the Israelites as a whole).
The Temple continues to be rebuilt and will progress for a further two years or so until its completion on the 3rd day of the twelfth month in the sixth year of Darius’ reign (Ezra 6:14-15) when it will be dedicated and brought back into full use by the Israelites.
The question concerned the fast of the fifth month which took place on the ninth day and commemorated the destruction of the first temple. This is not mere speculation - Jeremiah records for us the day in Jer 52:12-13 and notes that the instigator of this event was Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, who burnt all the great houses and structures throughout the city on that day.
Therefore, the Jews had turned that day into an annual event when they fasted and remembered the destruction of the Temple and, consequently, the exile from their land.
With the restored Temple half-completed, the people of Bethel (following the RSV - see above) seem to have been questioning in their own hearts whether or not there was any point in grieving over the old structure when the new had come. Their two messengers, Sharezer and Regemmelech, came to Jerusalem to settle the issue once and for all in consultation with the priests and prophets of the Lord.
b. The questioners questioned
That the men came to ask of the ‘priests and prophets’ indicates that there may have been some sort of ruling council which sat over the religious affairs of the nation but we can’t be sure. Smith states that the passage
‘...suggests that the people were not free to make changes in religious practices without some authenticating word from Yahweh’
but this is not certain. The people of Bethel may simply have not been able to resolve the issue amongst themselves and therefore turned for ‘arbitration’ to the group of religious leaders who they knew to be able to sift through the issues and come up with a definitive answer one way or the other - even though the answer they got was unpredictable!
The messengers would probably have been expecting one of two answers from the priests and prophets. Either they should continue to celebrate the fast as a remembrance of the national disaster which had overtaken them or discontinue it as the new Temple was shortly to be completed and it had become irrelevant.
But they receive neither and, initially, Zechariah’s response under inspiration from God is to address the people as well as the messengers with three questions which, when answered, will reveal to them the information they require (Zech 7:5-7).
God often meets question with question, He is certainly not a ‘dial-an-answer’ God but One who stimulates and encourages His people to think for themselves. Discussion is all well and good amongst the Lord’s people and should be encouraged (Mal 3:16) but I’m reminded of a saying I heard many years ago which runs something like
‘When you speak you are only repeating what you know, but when you listen you may learn something’
and which is relevant in the Kingdom on numerous occasions when we want to get a quick answer without working towards it (that’s why these notes are ‘pointers’ and not the last word on any of the passages in question!). Discussion is all well and good but a direct word from God will change what we know and think and conform it (if we follow it) into what the Lord thinks on the matter.
So, too, here.
The priests and prophets really only had two answers they could give - but the Lord’s answer represents a third way which calls the Jews to think about their history and to commit themselves to a radically different lifestyle in the present.
The fast of the fifth month that the messengers ask about (and the fast of the seventh month that Zechariah adds in for good measure which remembered the murder of Gedaliah - Zech 7:5. See below under point d) had not been celebrated for God but for themselves - that is, they had decided to institute the dates as fasts and had set about it with all zeal and enthusiasm but it had not come from God Himself.
Such is the problem with all religion - it is self-indulgent. The religious forms that we have (and they are legion, whether hymn singing, chorus singing, communion celebration orders and so on) are done because we enjoy doing them, not always and solely because God wants them done that way (see also Is 58:1-3). When God wants to move on into different ways, His people are often unwilling to leave behind the old ways of doing things thinking that, in them, God dwells - but He will not be limited by structure (see my notes on ‘Sails’ here and on ‘A new battle needs a new strategy’ here for further Scriptural examples and teaching).
c. The root of the remembrance
The fasts (see point d below) remembered God’s judgment upon the nation (though the fast of the seventh month remembered a murder committed by a group of Jews which resulted in the exile of the remaining Jews in the land into Egypt) because of their disobedience, whereas the Israelites seem to have seen them as national calamities that had got separated from the reason they’d occurred.
God had warned that generation upon whom these judgments fell ‘by the former prophets’ (Zech 7:7) to repent of their ways and to turn from their sin but they had hardened their hearts so that all the ‘disasters’ had come upon them (Zech 1:1-6).
God therefore asks the nation through Zechariah (7:7)
‘When Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, with her cities round about her, and the South and the lowland were inhabited, were not these the words which the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets?’
or, in other words,
‘Why are you remembering events that came about because of your disobedience?’
Each of the events could have been averted but that former generation would not listen to the words of the prophets who were repeatedly sent to them until it was too late. Only too late and in exile did the nation realise that they had reaped what they’d sown (Zech 1:6).
Edersheim 2 (all quotes here from this source are rightly set in the context of the service taking place in first century Israel) notes that
‘What were idly bewailed as national calamities were really Divine judgments, caused by national sins, and should have been acknowledged as righteous, the people turning from their sins in true repentance unto God’
These were not innocent natural disasters that they were remembering, then, but righteous acts of a righteous God that had been directed against them. And, besides, why remember their disobedience and the time when they went away from God when He has already begun to show them the glorious future that He has for them (see the previous six chapters and the second part of the explanation of these two chapters under the heading ‘The Future’)?
d. The four great fasts
Zechariah finally gets around to commenting and ‘almost’ answering the original question in these two verses but he deals with not just that one fast that they came to ask about but the four fasts which had been incorporated into the nation’s religious calendar.
These four annual fasts were:
i. 4th month, 17th day
It was on the 9th day of this month that the walls of Jerusalem were breached (Jer 39:2) but the Jews took the 17th as the day upon which they remembered it. Edersheim 2 notes that it commemorated
‘...the taking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the interruption of the daily sacrifice’
while the Mishnah (written c.200AD to outline the ways of the Jews before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD) in
Taanith 4:6 notes that
‘On the 17th of Tammuz...the City was breached...’
ii. 5th month, 9th day
This seems to be an exact date for the burning of the Temple under Nebuzaradan as previously noted (Jer 52:12-13). Edersheim 2 confirms the application of the event to the fast in NT times while the Mishnah, again in Taanith 4:6, states that
‘On the 9th of Ab...the Temple was destroyed the first and the second time...’
the latter event referring to the destruction under Titus in 70AD.
iii. 7th month, 2nd day
Smith states that
‘...the fast of the seventh month could refer to the Day of Atonement’
which took place on the tenth day but this is unlikely because of the background to the passage that we have already looked at. There is no context with judgment on the nation’s sin in the Israelites’ history that would warrant Zechariah’s clear association with such an occurrence (Zech 7:5, 7). Rather, it was a date that was accepted (but not stated in Scripture) as being the day on which Gedaliah, the Governor of the land after the exile, was murdered by a group of Jews (II Kings 25:25), after which all the inhabitants of the land fled to Egypt for fear of what the Chaldeans might do to them (II Kings 25:26).
Concerning NT times, Edersheim 2 comments that this fast
‘...on the 2nd of Tishri, is said by tradition to be in memory of the slaughter of Gedaliah and his associates at Mizpah’
iv. 10th month, 10th day
This day marked the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem and is an absolute date given to us by the Scriptural account (II Kings 25:1).
Edersheim 2 confirms the existence of the fast in NT times when he writes that it took place
‘...on the 10th of Tebeth, when the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar commenced’
But notice the Lord’s words through Zechariah in 8:19
‘[These fasts] shall [not “will”] be to you seasons of joy and gladness...’
The promise to the Israelites was a present - not a future - one because He had removed the reproach of the exile and was, even now, restoring the nation back into a covenant relationship with Himself.
These words from God were supposed to meet with repentance in the hearers’ hearts so that forgiveness and restoration might flow from the presence of God as they set themselves to follow after ‘...truth and peace’ but all four fasts continued to be observed throughout the second temple period (some 600 years) in spite of God’s command (see above the quotes from Edersheim 2 and especially the testimony to two of the fasts in the pages of the Mishnah).
Unfortunately, the Israelites proved themselves to be of like spirit to their fathers who had disregarded the word of repentance delivered by the former prophets (Zech 1:4). They continued celebrating their fasts and didn’t turn to grasp hold of the promise that the Lord had given them - they continued to be miserable instead of joyful at those times of the year, they continued in the way of their fathers rather than of their one true Father.
And they continue, to this present day, to ‘celebrate’ those fasts even though God told them to change it around some 2,400 years ago! Rightly did Luke record (Luke 7:30) that
‘...the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves...’
but we would do well not to condemn them but to let their example warn us of the need to change in accordance with the way that God would lead us. While their hardness of heart demonstrated here is ample proof of their hardness of heart when Christ came, we would do well to take heed that they don’t have the sole stake in the possession of such a characteristic!
The Church is often guilty of the very same actions when it fails to move on the way that God is leading - when God points them in a direction that would give them a future and a hope but they would rather cling on to the dead and dying traditions of the past.
Past, Present and Future
Of the above passage, I have just concluded the previous section by citing 8:18-19 as the ‘reply’ of the Lord to the messengers sent to Jerusalem, but the two verses sit as the conclusion of a passage which speaks to the Israelites of their present experience and what God requires of them. The entire passage that I want to deal with here briefly can be divided up successfully into three ‘time’ sections which deal with the nation’s:
Past - 7:8-14 - The reason for the nation’s fasting four times in the year
Present - 8:9-19 - What the nation needed to do now
Future - 8:1-8, 20-23 - What God wanted to do for them
We’ll take these sections one at a time.
a. The Past
In the RSV, the first three verses read as if God is giving command to the Israelites of Zechariah’s day as to what they should be concerned to do but, from 7:11 onwards, it is made plain that what God is doing is proclaiming the word that came to their forefathers through the prophets and commenting on it that
‘they refused to hearken and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears that they might not hear’
concluding with the observation that (7:12)
‘...great wrath came from the Lord of hosts’
before going on to detail exactly what happened (7:13-14) through God’s refusal to hear the people’s cries when calamity came upon them until the captivity and dispersion amongst the nations and the laying waste of the land.
In one sense, the returned exiles didn’t need to be reminded of their past - it would have all too readily come to mind as they considered their own circumstances and situations, but the declaration is important here as it backs up the prophets words in 7:7 where he has been at pains to make the inquirers realise that the foundation of the celebration of their fasting was the disobedience of the nation and not any righteous act on their part.
If their past could be painted in such depressing colours, they couldn’t realistically expect God to do anything for them again but before going on to outline the need for them to do something in the present, the Lord speaks concerning the future He has for them (8:1-8), returning to the same theme later in conclusion (8:20-23), giving them a reason not to continue to think upon their past but to prepare for the future by changing their lives in the present to be ready for it.
With the shame of their past well in their minds and the promise of future blessing (which I will deal with in section c), God moves on to their obligation in the now.
b. The Present
God’s purpose towards His people in the present was at least fourfold:
i. Peace round about the Israelites (8:12)
This should probably be seen in the context of the Lord’s words of 8:10 where He notes that, before that time, one man was set against another within the land - that is, neighbour against neighbour rather than nation against nation, even though peace and security within the land will not be far from the mind and has already been mentioned by Zechariah previously (2:5 along with the implication of the judgment of the nations that the Lord was about to perform).
ii. This internal peace had been brought about by the Lord so that the nation may possess the abundant harvests that God was going to bless them with from that time onwards (8:12 - see also Haggai 2:19) and without which there would be so much in-fighting that entire fields would have probably been spoiled by warring and competing factions.
Peace was also necessary for the completion of the Temple as it was for the building of the Temple under Solomon (I Chr 22:9-10) - indeed, it may even be true that through the rebuilding work God had united the hearts of the exiles to achieve an objective that they could all share in, contribute towards and so develop commitment towards one another.
After all, if the returned exiles were set on completing the Temple and yet the agricultural cycle still needed completing, neighbouring families may have stood guard over one another’s produce when their turn came to go up to Jerusalem to give what skills were required to do the work.
iii. The Israelites were to be a blessing to the nations that were round about them (8:13) recalling the Abramic covenant of Gen 12:3. The text seems to imply that the foreigners would no longer learn and tell Jewish jokes!
Even though the land had laid desolate and its paucity had greeted the returnees, the abundance of the harvests that God had now promised them would, naturally, overflow in prosperity into the nations that neighboured them. Instead of Judah being associated with the ‘tail’, the less well-off, their name would come to be associated with the rich and prosperous and both they and their God would be honoured.
iv. God was only going to do good to the Israelites (8:15) even though that was more than they deserved for their past deeds and more than their fathers had received at the hand of the Lord who was forced to judge the land and remove them from it.
But all these promises of God’s intention - whether in the present as here (8:12-15) or in the future (8:1-8, 20-23) are balanced by the practicality and necessity laid upon God’s people to obey His word (8:16-17). These two verses need reading carefully here as they sit as the necessary response of a people to whom much is being done for them and will be done for them.
‘These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate...’
This word has a number of striking similarities with the word that the Israelites had received before the exile (recorded in 7:9-10) which shows us that God’s will for both their forefathers and themselves had changed little in the intervening years. Still God required a righteous people who would do according to all His heart.
Both before and after the exile, God had told them (7:9 and 8:16) to
‘Render true judgments’
and to make sure (7:10, 8:17) that
‘...none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart’
and the other commands underline the desire of the Lord that the nation that bore His name and possessed His dwelling place might be a people who lived peacefully together. Even though God had brought peace within the nation (8:10, 12), that peace needed to be maintained by right attitudes and dealings with those who were part of that nation.
What God required from His people did not change and the generations who lived before the exile were confronted with
the same word that their descendants are now commanded after it.
c. The Future
Zech 8:1-8, 20-23
The Lord makes a number of promises regarding the Israelites’ future, some of which are simply repeats of what he has already said through the prophet in his series of visions:
i. Zech 8:2 speaks of the Lord’s jealousy for His people as previously stated in 1:14-15 while 8:3 repeats the similar promise of 2:5, 10-12 that God would return to and inhabit Jerusalem.
ii. Zech 8:4-6 was an outstanding promise in the light of the returned exiles’ present situation (Cp Zech 2:4 where a more précised account is recorded). Even until the time of Nehemiah, there were few inhabitants of Jerusalem (Neh 7:4, 11:1) as the wall was in such a poor state that it could not repel an attack had one come (Neh 1:3, 2:13).
But it was the Lord’s intention to establish another community there - no longer would men and women die young through disease and war, but they would live long in the land (8:4) and new generations of inhabitants would be produced by the families rather than by forced removal from the villages round about (8:5).
Instead of the city being a loosely held together structure that the believers came to for the sole purpose of offering sacrifice in the Temple, a new community would be there that would demonstrate what it’s like to live under the protection and blessing of God.
iii. Zech 8:7-8 doesn’t repeat anything that Zechariah has said previously even though there has been an encouragement given to the exiles to remove themselves from the land of their captivity and return to the land (2:6-7).
God was to bring back to the land many more exiles (as I noted on 6:10, there appears to have been many such returns even though only the major ones have been recorded for us in both Ezra and Nehemiah) not just for a numerical increase but in order that He might enter into a covenant relationship with them.
The words ‘east’ and ‘west’ do not specifically speak of Babylon (which is normally referred to as ‘the north country’ - see 2:6, 6:6, 6:8) but are used here to speak of all the places where the Lord had scattered them in judgment.
iv. Zech 8:20-23 parallels both 2:11 and 6:15 but goes much further than those passages do.
Jerusalem shall be seen to be the centre where God can be known so that nations shall come there to seek the Lord. The Jews, also, will be sought after (in a positive fashion!) as they will be in high respect among the Gentiles, just as they were in Solomon’s time (I Kings 11:23-25).
The sad fact of the matter about all these promises is that they were never fulfilled even though God desired to do these things for each and everyone of the returnees who were currently building the Temple.
Though it would be going too far to say that the word as spoken through Zechariah went unheeded in his day - that is, the word that told the nation to abandon their fasting of the four months of the year that remembered their disobedience and God’s judgment. But we know that, in later times, these continued to be ‘celebrated’ against the prophetic word spoken through Zechariah and that the Jews, therefore, showed themselves to be like their fathers who had turned against the words of the former prophets (Zech 1:4) and did whatever their hand and their mind desired to do with scant regard for the will of God.
From our experience of what happened in subsequent generations to this specific word, Jesus’ words are strikingly relevant and are seen to sit on the foundation of passages such as this one (Mtw 23:29-33):
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets”. Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’
Finally, let me say this again so it’s not missed - we would do well not to point the finger at the Jew of the OT (and of the NT as well) and think that they were the singularly most rebellious people who ever lived and who actively opposed God’s Word to such an extent that twice they were exiled away from the promises of God.
It would be better that we looked at our own Church history (even recent and currently-being-made history) and realised that the biggest fools in not stepping into the new things that God has for us and of abandoning the old ways that are dead and dying are us.
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