Now take your Bibles please and turn with me in them to the prophecy of Zechariah, chapter 7. Zechariah chapter 7. We’re looking at the whole chapter together. You’ll find it on page 794 if you’re using one of the church Bibles. Before we read God’s Word would you please bow your heads with me as we ask for His help? Let’s pray.
With the psalmist our prayer, O Lord, is for mercy. By Your Word, would You show us our sin and by Your Word would You apply to us the Gospel remedy. Have mercy on us and give us Your Spirit to take of what is Christ’s and to make it known to us. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Zechariah chapter 7 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His own holy and inerrant Word. May He write His eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Indictments from the Mouth of Jesus
In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 23, the Lord Jesus Christ issued a broadside against the Pharisees, the religious elite of His own day. And at the heart of His critique was their formal observance of the religious minutia of the Law while leaving their hearts untouched. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He says. “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law, justice and mercy and faithfulness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but inwardly are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness, so you outwardly appear righteous to others but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” They were careful about every detail of outward religious and ritual behavior, but the poor were neglected, the hurting went uncared for, the suffering were left to their wounds, and at the heart of the matter was the matter of the heart. Their religion did not penetrate their hearts. Their hearts were hard and unchanged.
Jesus’ stinging rebukes belong to a long tradition in the Scriptures among the prophets that God had sent to the Jewish people. In fact, in Matthew 23, Jesus Himself makes the connection between His own preaching ministry and the ministry of the prophets, between His own generation’s negative response to Him and the generations that have gone before who similarly negatively responded with hatred and vitriol and murderous intent to the prophets. In particular, Jesus connects the murderous response of the scribes and Pharisees to His ministry and His preaching with the response of the generation who listened to the prophet Zechariah who was killed by them, Jesus says, between the sanctuary and the altar.
From a Ministry of Encouragement to a Ministry of Rebuke and Warning
Now as we’ve been studying Zechariah together over these months, we’ve heard words of encouragement and reassurance over and over. That has been the burden of Zechariah’s message in vision after vision in the first six chapters, reminding the beleaguered people of God not to give up but to persevere. They’ve been discouraged and hard-pressed, but Zechariah had told them the temple will be restored in due course, and more, the Lord will build His kingdom. The blessings that are past and the sufferings that are present are nothing compared to the glory to come. That’s been his message. Do not give up. Press on. The best days lie still ahead. “So why” you might ask, “given such an encouraging ministry would the populace turn on Zechariah as Jesus says they did and murder him in the very temple that had been rebuilt largely as a result of Zechariah’s own encouragements to them? Why would they do that?” It may well have been because of messages like the one we’ll be studying together this evening - a message very like the strong rebukes of Jesus in Matthew 23, which should warn us as we begin this evening to strap on our steel, toe-cap boots because the Holy Spirit is likely to stamp on our toes just a little. He may well make us mad as He calls us out on our sin. Just remember if that’s how you feel then you’re in company with some pretty unsavory characters as you do - scribes and Pharisees. They didn’t like it either when Jesus pointed out their failure to respond from the heart to the rebukes of the Law of God. Remember too, though, that actually what the Lord really aims at in His rebukes, hard and sore though they may sometimes be, is not to harden our hearts but to soften them and melt them and bring them to repentance. It was the puritan, Thomas Watson, I believe, who once remarked that “It is the same sun that bakes hard the clay that also melts the ice.” The same Word of God that can bake our rebellious hearts till they are as unyielding as stone can also cause a spiritual thaw and melt our icy spirits. May the Lord do the latter and not the former in all of us as His Word is expounded this evening.
The Context of Zechariah 7
Well let’s take a look at the passage together, Zechariah chapter 7. We’ve come in our study of the book so far to something of a pivot point in the overall structure of Zechariah’s prophecy. In chapters 1 through 6 we were dealing with a series, remember, of eight night visions in which the wonderfully encouraging message of a sure and certain coming kingdom has been promised and elaborated upon over and over again. And then in the second half of the book that we will come to, God willing in due course, in chapters 9 to the end, Zechariah pronounces a series of oracles, prophetic sermons if you like, promising not just the blessing of the coming kingdom but now with more clarity the promise of the coming King. And the pivot, the hinge between those two halves of the book, the coming kingdom in chapters 1 to 6, the coming King in chapters 9 to 14, is right here in chapter 7 and 8, which is really a sermon to the people preached in the context of one particular, very practical, concrete, theological problem.
Look with me at verses 1 to 3. Notice carefully when the action recorded here is taking place. The Word of the Lord came to Zechariah, we learn, in the fourth year of King Darius, on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. That puts these events about two years after the beginning of the night visions of chapters 1 through 6. The prophet has had a two year hiatus after that one long night in which those eight visions were given to him. But now his sabbatical is over, we might say. His ministry resumes and its timing could not be more important. Work on the rebuilding of the temple had begun again as the first part of Zechariah’s ministry had begun back in chapter 1. The Lord had sent him to encourage the people to press on in that long and grueling task. And so for the last two years, in the wake of his encouragements, the temple had been steadily rising from the rubble. It would take another three years before it would be fully complete, which means of course, that at this point in chapter 7 as Zechariah’s next phase of ministry begins, the temple restoration project is about halfway complete. And it was against that backdrop that two men, Sharezer and Regem-melech, arrive in Jerusalem. They’ve been sent as an embassy from the community of returned Jewish exiles living nearby in Bethel and they have noticed the temple project is going swimmingly and all is well; things are going great. The walls are rising higher every day. Worship has resumed. Exiles have returned.
The People’s Question and Zechariah’s Response
And so debate has begun to be generated in their city. The worship wars have erupted in Bethel. Four months previously the community had observed the fast of the fifth month. It has been instituted to remember the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar at the beginning of the exile, including the destruction of the temple. But now the exile has come to an end. They are back in the land. The temple is being rebuilt. Do we really need to observe a fast instituted to commemorated its destruction and the beginning of the exile? The exile’s over; the temple’s being rebuilt. Do we need to observe the fast? It’s now the ninth month when they arrive in Jerusalem and still the debate presumably has been raging. And so Sharezer and Regem-melech are sent to the priests and to the prophets to entreat the favor of the Lord and settle the dispute. Look at verse 3. Here’s their question. “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month as I have done for so many years?” They are looking for a simple “Yes” or “No” - fast or not to fast. Which is it? However they do make the fatal mistake of asking a preacher a theology question and so instead of a simple “Yes” or “No” answer they get two chapters worth of a sermon. So let that be a warning to you! In this first part of the sermon which we’ll be looking at tonight in chapter 7, Zechariah has some strong words of rebuke for them. His answer to their question begins by exposing three spiritual diseases plaguing their lives. And then he goes on to warn of two dangers that will inevitably follow if those diseases are not immediately treated. Three diseases and two dangers.
Three Diseases and Two Dangers
The First Disease: Empty Religious Performance
Let’s think about the three diseases first of all. The first disease is diagnosed in verses 4 through 7. “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?” You see the first disease diagnosed? It’s empty religious performance. The attitude of the ambassadors from Bethel to the fast wanting to be released from its obligations now that the temple has been restored, that attitude, Zechariah says, is simply the full flowering of a deeper spiritual problem. Their religious observance, such as it had been all these years, had never been right. It may have conformed in outward form and in every detail to the required pattern, but their fasts over the last seventy years and more now actually, had not been for the Lord. And now their eating and drinking was wholly focused on themselves.
Fasting in the Old Testament was a means of expressing repentance and longing for God. So Joel chapter 2 and verse 12, “Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your hearts with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Fasting was a sign of returning to God. Ezra 8 and verse 21, “I proclaim the fast so that we might humble ourselves before God.” Fasting was about the ache of the soul for God, a longing for more of God. “Christian fasting, at its root,” John Piper has written, listen to this, “is the hunger of a homesickness for God.” That’s what true fasting is. “When you fasted for these seventy years,” God asks these two men, “was it for me that you fasted? Was I the bread of life to your heart that you so urgently needed, who is so much more necessary to your sustenance than daily bread that you would go without daily bread if you might have me? Am I the one you want?” The Lord diagnoses their spiritual problem with breathtaking precision. They were looking for a simple “Yes” or “No.” Instead, they have their hearts laid bare. Oh how easy it is to maintain the external form of religious observance, to mouth our prayers, to sing our songs, to repeat our catechisms, to fast on the fifth and on the seventh months as it were, and still be utterly focused on ourselves.
The Second Disease: Inner Moral Indifference
But behind their hollow religious performances lay an even deeper spiritual problem. Here’s the second diagnosis. Look at the passage again in verse 7. Zechariah reminds them this was the very thing that the former prophets had been calling them out for prior to the exile. The prophet, Isaiah, for example, had summoned the people to true fasting instead of the false fasting and the false show they had been putting on. Isaiah 58 says, “On the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen? Only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” The kind of empty, external, religious performances Isaiah saw prior to the exile and now Zechariah identifies continuing even in his own day after the exile could not coexist with moral bankruptcy of life. Empty, religious performance can coexist with a morally bankrupt life. You can go through the motions and be a morally bankrupt and purely external Christian.
Look at verse 9. “‘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.’” You see what’s been going on in their community? On the surface of their lives was outward, religious duty, but underneath festered the rotting wounds of inner-moral indifference. It’s a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in the churches of our own day and Zechariah here is calling us to face it. It is no kind of Christianity to come to worship and live as you please. Sleeping with your girlfriend and following Jesus do not go together, news flash, no matter how faithful you are on Sunday mornings. Beating your children is incompatible with trusting Jesus no matter how much money you give to missions. Christianity is not a matter of words, do you see, or outward show. It is obvious in a changed life. And so Zechariah calls his people and he calls us to repentance, to put in place, especially in the context, notice, of our relationships with one another, patterns of generosity and compassion, of patience and attentiveness, of care and service. His message is the message of James. “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” - James 1:26 and 27.
The Third Disease: Hard, Resistant Hearts
But then notice the third spiritual disease Zechariah identifies. He takes us even deeper to the roots of the problem confronting the people of his generation. There was empty religious performance and there was inner-moral indifference, then thirdly and at the root of everything else, there were also hard resistant hearts, hard resistant hearts. Verses 11 and 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 already had the Word of God coming to them. The Spirit of God had already exposed their sin under the searching preaching of the former prophets, but they wouldn’t listen. Notice the vocabulary Zechariah uses to describe that generation. It’s anatomical, isn’t it? He talks about shoulders and ears and diamond-hard hearts. Their whole bodies, their selves had turned away inside and out. They themselves had become diamond-hard, resistant to the truth.
And that’s the real problem, isn’t it? It’s not simply outward, religious observance, verses 4 to 6, or ethical behavior modification that needs improving, verses 7 to 10. What is more urgently needed is the matter of the heart. That’s what needs to be addressed. The fundamental issue was that their hearts were impervious to the ministry of the Word of God. The heart of the matter for them and perhaps the heart of the matter for us is a matter of our hearts. You can sing and pray and fast and read and listen to all the sermons you can find, you can give generously and serve selflessly all the remaining days of your life, listen - you can do all that and still be lost forever because you didn’t understand that the heart of the matter was a matter of the heart, that it begins with the heart, that what you need is a new heart. How do you respond to the Word of God? Does it penetrate? Are you being changed by it? Has God worked by His Spirit to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh by the Gospel of grace? “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you; cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you double-minded” - James 4 and verse 8. Jesus died; His own heart, remember, was punctured to cleanse you, to make you clean, to change your heart and heal your heart. The full penalty of sin that our guilty hearts deserve fell upon Him at Calvary. He died that we might live. He was condemned that we might be pardoned. Will you run with your filthy hard heart to Jesus, who alone can take it away and give you a heart of flesh, a heart with His Law written upon it in which His own Spirit will dwell forever?
The First Spiritual Danger: A Deaf Ear to Cries for Deliverance
Three spiritual diseases and then he warns of two interrelated spiritual dangers that will follow if those diseases are left unchecked and untreated. The first danger is in verse 13. “As I called,” this is the Lord speaking, “As I called and they would not listen, so they called and I would not hear.” That is a stunning statement. “As I called and they would not listen, when they called I would not hear.” When we turn a deaf ear to the call of God to repent of the practice of sin, He will turn a deaf ear to us when we call to Him to be rescued from the consequences of sin. What right do we have to expect God to listen to our prayers when we will not listen to His Word?
The Second Spiritual Danger: Coming Judgment and Eternal Exile
And notice the second warning in verse 14. “I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations they had not known. Thus the land was left desolate so that no one went to and fro and the pleasant land was made desolate.” The curses of the covenant that God had promised fell as He said they would upon that generation. Judgment came. And so dear friends it will come on all who will not repent, who will not hear and turn and flee to Christ for mercy at the summons of His Word. And it will not simply be the judgment of temporary exile but the outer darkness of eternal exclusion from the presence of God in hell forever. I’m trying to alarm you. I’m trying hard to alert you to danger you who profess to be a Christian while living like the world. I’m trying to make yourself ask yourself if you’ve ever really responded from the heart to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The first and great work of a Christian,” wrote Richard Baxter, “is about his heart.” Are you concerned about your heart, yourself, the core of who you are? Are you right with God? Or is your Christianity a thing of words and form and show? Judgment is coming. God will not listen to the pleas for lenience from anyone who did not listen to the Gospel pleas of Jesus Christ to come and repent and believe. Holiness is the necessary fruit of faith in Jesus. “Show me your faith without works,” James says, “and I will show you my faith by what I do.” “No good tree,” says our Lord Jesus, “bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” A heart that trusts in Jesus, a heart that has been made new by His grace, is a heart that bears good fruit in a changed life.
What does your life reveal about how your heart has answered the call of Christ to repent and believe? Oh, understand church membership is no immunity. Fasting and singing and praying provide no immunity. A changed heart is what you need. A changed heart. And only Jesus Christ can give it to you. Would you look to Christ? Would you do it now? He can give you a changed heart. Would you flee to Jesus? Do it now. Let’s pray together.
O our Father, we bow before You trembling in the knowledge that though You have been at work in us there is still yet much of our remaining corruption to shame us. We ask for mercy and cleansing. We would repent and flee to the only fountain that has been opened for sin and uncleanness in the wounds of our Savior the Lord Jesus. And how we pray for any here for whom their religion is a matter of words and form and show, who think it nothing more than a philanthropic bent of heart. O Lord, would You pierce them to the heart? Show them the bankruptcy of their very best works and help them to recognize that they need renovation and only You, only Christ can give it. Pour out Your Spirit upon the seed of the Word. Water it that it might bear fruit in a harvest of repentance and faith, for we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.
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