By Edward Dennett
Together with this chapter we pass out of the region of apocalyptic visions into the domain of pure and proper prophecy; and this extends to the close of the book. The main object of this portion is to bring in the introduction of Messiah, and to show the consequences of His rejection, issuing finally in the attack of the enemy, in the last days, on Jerusalem, and the interposition of God on behalf of His people, as preparatory, to the establishment of Messiah's throne in righteousness, when the Lord shall be King over all the earth.
The chapter commences with the date of the occurrence of the incident which becomes the occasion of, and forms a kind of preface to, the following prophecies. It was "in the fourth year of king Darius." — two years, therefore, after the date of the previous visions (see Zech. 1:1) - "that the word of the Lord came unto Zechariah in the fourth day of the ninth month, even in Chisleu" (v. 1); and this message was received by the prophet with reference to a special embassy which had been sent "to pray before the Lord." The character of this embassy is somewhat obscured by a mistranslation in verse 2. It should probably be rendered as follows: "When Bethel had sent Sherezer and Regem-melech, and their men, to pray before the Lord."1 It appears that the Jews who had returned from Babylon, and had fixed their abode at Bethel (see Nehemiah 11:31; Ezra 2:28), had sent this deputation to Jerusalem for a twofold purpose: "To pray before the Lord, [and] to speak unto the priests which were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?" (vv. 2, 3.)
The fifth month was the anniversary of the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, a memorable day to the Jew, significant as it was of the Lord's departure from His people, in the removal of His throne from Jerusalem, and one which, as it would seem from this chapter, was annually celebrated by, a solemn fast. But, as is seen in Christendom as well as among. the Jews, the most solemn fasts are often proclaimed and observed with little or no humiliation before God. And so, by the answer sent to this deputation, it must be concluded to have been with this fast of the fifth month. Those who observed it drew near to God with their lips, while their hearts were far from Him; and, moreover, they had become weary of its annual recurrence. This was the motive of their sending men to Jerusalem, to entreat the face of the Lord, and to enquire if it were necessary to continue to weep and to "separate" themselves as they had done for so many years. Were they not restored to the land? and was not the temple nearly completed?2 Might they not now, therefore, lay aside the badges of mourning and sorrow, and give themselves up to enjoyment?
The reader, even before the answer is pondered, will easily detect the selfishness that prompted this enquiry, which was addressed to the priests and to the prophets. A fast should be the expression of a state of heart, or it could have no value before God. If, therefore, the men of Bethel had the state of heart which the fast should have expressed, they could not have asked if it were needful to continue its observance. If they had realized the significance of their captivity in Babylon, or the present mournful condition of the restored remnant, they would have welcomed the return of the fast as an opportunity to pour out unitedly before God their tears and supplications; instead of which they felt it a burden, and desired its abolition. It seemed a pious thing to send men to pray before the Lord, and to put this question; but the Lord is not mocked. His eyes behold the heart, its motives, the springs of action; and hence He sends an answer which exposes all to view. The question had been sent by a few, the answer is addressed to all the people of the land, and to the priests. "Then came the word of the Lord of hosts unto me, saying, Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying When ye lasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, [even] to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves?" (or, more exactly, Is it not ye who eat, and ye who drink?) (vv. 4-6.)
In this manner the Lord lays bare the hearts of His people. It was true that they had punctiliously observed for seventy years the fasts of the fifth and the seventh months3 with all the external signs of lamentation and mourning; but they fasted not to the Lord, but as He enquires, by the mouth of the prophet, "Did ye at all fast unto me, to me?" No, whether fasting, or eating and drinking, it was done for themselves, and to themselves, God and His claims not being in all their thoughts. It is a striking illustration of how far man may go in self-deception in religious observances. A similar instance is met with in the prophet Isaiah. The Jews of his day had complained, "Wherefore have we fasted, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?" They had vainly imagined that they were commending themselves to the Lord by their mournful ceremonials; but the prophet, by the solemn answer he gives, strips them of their illusions. "Behold," he says, "in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?" (Isaiah 58:3-5.) The natural man never learns the lesson, that while man looks on the outward appearance God regards the heart, and hence, as the Lord Jesus told the Pharisees, that the thing which is highly esteemed amongst men is abomination with God.
It is a mistake religious man is ever making, that God must be pleased with him if he attend to outward forms and ceremonies, even when these ritualistic forms are of his own devising. The Lord Jesus Himself has dealt with this in solemn words in Matthew 15, wherein He shows that the iniquity of the Pharisees found its highest expression in teaching for doctrines the commandments of men, and that, as long as the heart is untouched, nothing, however religiously done, can be acceptable to God. This was the case with the Jews in our chapter; for the inhabitants of Bethel were but a sample of the state of all, and hence Zechariah is directed to recall to their minds God's former messages by the prophets, and the fact that all the sorrows which had befallen Jerusalem, as well as themselves, had resulted from their neglect of, and disobedience to, Jehovah's word. He thus, after exposing the insincerity of their pretended fasts, proceeds, "Should ye not hear the words which the Lord hath cried by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, and the cities thereof round about her, when men inhabited the south and the plain?" (v. 7.)
Herein lies a principle of abiding importance. Instead of wondering whether they had not mourned sufficiently over their national disasters, significant of Jehovah's anger against His people, they should have gone back and enquired into the causes of their sorrows, and they would then have learned, that their rebellion against God had procured for them their adversities; and, furthermore, they should have examined themselves as to whether in their fastings they had judged and humbled themselves before God, and whether they were now accepting for themselves the admonitions, the warnings, and the directions of His word. And surely, there is a loud voice in all this instruction for the people of God at the present moment. In our sorrows, our weaknesses, and our chastisements under the Lord's hand, are we also not too often content with meetings for confession and humiliation, while we forget to enquire into the causes of our failures, and to ascertain what departures from the word of God may, have brought us into our low condition? Let us be warned by the case before us, and at the same time learn that, however sincerely even we may humble ourselves before God on account of past sins, there can be no restoration of blessing until we have gone down to the roots of our failure, and tested all by the word of God. The slightest departure from God's order, if known and allowed, is sufficient to grieve the Spirit of God, and to hinder blessing. If therefore we would discover the causes of the broken and captive condition of the church, we must go back to Pentecost, even as the Jews were here commanded to go back to the time of Jerusalem's prosperity, and when we have done this we may, by comparing the present with the past, easily learn the means of restoration and blessing.
The eighth verse would seem at first sight to be the commencement of a new message, but a closer examination reveals the fact that the Lord does but give a summary, through Zechariah of the words which He had "cried by the former prophets." Thus verses 9 and 10 give the substance of His former messages to His people, verses 11 and 12 point out the way, in which His word had been refused; and verses 13 and 14 show that the withering judgments which had fallen upon Israel and the land were the consequence of their hardened hearts and sinful rebellion. We have then first a compendium of what God required of His people as a condition of being retained in blessing in the land. Israel was under law, mingled however with grace after the sin of the golden calf, yet still under law, and therefore under responsibility. Thus the first part of the book of Deuteronomy insists again and again upon obedience as the condition of blessing and of remaining in the land; and Jeremiah, in very similar language to this in Zechariah, teaches the same lesson. He says, "Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever." (Chap. 7:4-7.)
It will be perceived that it is the second table of the law — love to their neighbours — to which the Lord had recalled the attention of His people in the days of their prosperity. It is, in fact, love to their neighbour in its spiritual measure of love to themselves; and hence they had been called upon to execute true judgment, not to show respect of persons; to have a tender and compassionate heart; to abstain from oppressing the helpless, the widow, the fatherless, the stranger, and the poor; and finally, they were not to imagine (i.e. devise, see Micah 2:1-3) evil against their brethren in their hearts. All this shows the value God attaches to our practical conduct, to a walk in relation to others as formed and ordered by His word. And He had recalled Israel to these moral features, because it was precisely in these things, as may be gathered from their history, that they were lacking. Unless therefore they listened to these divine admonitions judgment awaited them.
How then had they received them? Can anything be more solemn than the description of the way in which these divine communications were treated? "They refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent in His Spirit by the former prophets." (vv. 11, 12.) There was thus not only indifference, but there was also positive enmity to the word of God, even open rebellion against Him and His claims. Nehemiah confessed the sins of his people in almost the very words which are here used by the prophet. He said, "They dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments. … and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their necks, and would not hear." (Nehemiah 9:29.) Isaiah also points out the same moral characteristics, in evidence of the utter obduracy of the people, in the well known and often cited words, "This people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed." (Matthew 13:15.) Thus it was the will of Israel not to hear; for they "refused to hearken" — stopped their ears, "made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear," and in this way resolutely turned away from the pleadings and admonitions of the prophets. The apostle Paul speaks of a time when, in like manner, professing Christians "will not endure sound doctrine … and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." (2 Tim. 4:3-4.) All this, whether among Jews or Christians, is a sign of terrible moral corruption; for nothing betrays more fully the wickedness of the heart than the rejection of the word of God, and when this is openly done it is also the sure precursor of coming judgment. This is simply a matter of fact, as recorded in the Scriptures, but the reader must judge for himself whether the refusal of the divine word is not a characteristic of the present moment; not so much by the infidel and the atheist, who have never received it, as by numbers who claim the Christian name, and even by many among these who assume the place of Christian teachers. To throw doubts upon the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is but the first step in the development of that rationalism which affects to be wiser than God, which denies the foundations of the faith, and which interprets whatever of the Bible it professes to believe in accordance with the desires of the natural man. God's own word is rejected, and the word of foolish man is substituted in its place; and this is the fruit of the boasted wisdom of the nineteenth century!
Let us now see the consequences of this high-handed rebellion against God. The reader will mark the connection as shown by the word "therefore." "Therefore came a great wrath from the Lord of hosts. Therefore it is come to pass, that as he cried, and they would not hear, so they cried, and I would not hear, saith the Lord of hosts: but I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations whom they knew not. Thus the land was desolate after them, that no man passed through nor returned: for they laid the pleasant land desolate." (vv. 12-14.) The returned remnant knew very well the past history of their nation, that the pleasant land (the land of desire) had been ravaged and laid waste by Nebuchadnezzar, and that even their present condition, though they had returned from exile, was a testimony to what had been suffered. But whenever we get off the ground of the word of God there is a tendency to lose sight of the hand of God in our chastenings; and it is more than likely that the Jews, forgetting their special place in the dealings of God, were taking up in spirit a position like that of the surrounding peoples. If therefore they had been conquered and carried away captive, so, they might have reasoned, have other nations. To counteract any such thought, and to compel them to see the root of all the evils that had befallen them, the Lord reminds them of the conduct of their fathers, and tells them that it was His wrath they had suffered in judgment; and hence that it was in His favour alone prosperity could be enjoyed, and that obedience to His word was the only way by which His favour could be regained. It was for this reason the prophet was instructed to hold up this picture of the past, that they might learn a lesson, take warning, for themselves. They might fast and separate themselves for ever; but if this were unaccompanied by self-judgment and obedience to the Word, they did but fast in vain. Our Lord also taught the same thing when He said to His disciples, "When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto Thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."4 (Matthew 6:16-18). The Jews and the priests to whom Zechariah was sent, in their desire to commend themselves to one another, had too much forgotten Him who "seeth in secret," and thus betrayed the state of their hearts. Nor are we free from the same danger; and hence it is that the apostle insists upon the true heart and the full assurance of faith in our approaches to God. (Hebrews 10; compare 1 John 3:20-22.) It was then in consequence of disobedience to the word of God that judgment had fallen upon His people. The various stages of His dealings with them are very solemn. First, "there came a great wrath from the Lord of hosts." This failing to produce contrition, "He cried," and they would not hear, and then when they, awakened at length, though too late, did cry to Him, the Lord would not hear. (Compare Prov. 1:24-31) And thus there came, finally, the crowning woe and judgment in their being scattered with a whirlwind among all the nations whom they knew not. Thus the land, bereaved of its inhabitants, had been desolate; for they, they by their sins, had laid the pleasant land desolate. In this solemn way the prophet is made to lay bare the bitter root of all the sorrows of the people, that they might learn what an evil and bitter thing it was to depart from the living and true God.
The subject then of the chapter is the failure of God's people when in possession of the land, under responsibility, and the judgment which consequently fell upon them from the Lord through the instrumentality of Nebuchadnezzar. In the next chapter we shall see God restoring and securing in grace what His people had forfeited through their transgressions.
1) The mistake has arisen from translating the proper name, "Bethel," by the "house of God"; for it would seem that, in the words of another, "the house of God is nowhere in Scripture called Bethel. Bethel is always the name of the place. The house of God is designated, by historians, psalmists, prophets, by the name, Beth-elohim, more commonly Beth-Ha-elohim, or [the house] of Jehovah."
2) In fact it was two years from this time before the temple was finished.
3) As the fast of the fifth month commemorated the destruction of the temple, that of the seventh month recalled the assassination of the governor of the land, and of the Jews that were with him, by Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, an event which was followed by the remnant, in disobedience to the word of the Lord, taking refuge in Egypt. (Jer. 41 - 44)
4) The word "openly" in this scripture, as also in verses 4 and 6 in the same chapter, should be omitted, as having no sufficient evidence for its insertion.