Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 21:1-6; Revelation 20:7-15; Zechariah 7-8; Zephaniah 2-3
Zechariah 7-8 forms a literary unit, with the opening verse situating it in 518 BC. This is 69 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Their policy was to remove defeated peoples from their lands. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians, their policy was to send exiles home to run their lands and pay taxes. Since it was prophesied that the exile would last 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10), a delegation comes to Zechariah asking how much longer they must mourn and fast.
In Hebrew, different words for ‘mourning’ and ‘fasting’ are used in the question and answer. The delegation uses everyday words that mean crying and denying oneself. Zechariah replies with words that carried theological meaning. His word for mourning denotes crying to God when in pain, while that for fasting is a word linked to sin and repentance. Fasting at that time was not about individuals denying themselves, but was a community response to God’s discipline (the exile), expressing repentance, and looking forward to future feasting with God. Zechariah asks if their crying and fasting is focused on God. As the Lord says, ‘was it really for me that you fasted?’ (v. 5)
Zechariah ties fasting to ethics. Fasting should lead to self-examination of our relationships with God and others, and a reorientation of our ethical priorities. We should pursue God with humility, seeking to be changed and willing to obey (Zephaniah 2:3). God is not concerned with mere external rituals and activity, but with our heart and ethical character. Zechariah addresses this first with justice (7:9-10) and then with truth (8:16-17). Only then does he answer their question about fasting (8:18).
True justice flows from faithfulness to God’s character and law. We are just because God is just and righteous (Zephaniah 3:5). Justice should be practiced without prejudice or favouritism, and with mercy and compassion. The latter terms are also linked to God’s character. Mercy is faithful loyalty, particularly within a covenant of love. Compassion captures the emotional dimension of tender caring for another. Internal motivations are important, and should lead to action. If fasting is internally motivated and coupled with reflection, our temporary denial should lead to empathy for those with far less: widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. These groups are regularly mentioned in the Old Testament, but only here are all four listed together. All have lost those who would normally protect and care for them. They were vulnerable to being exploited, and God’s people should not oppress them or plot harm to them. Hence the link between true fasting and true justice.
Truth is also important more generally (8:). Zechariah reminds the delegation that previous generations failed to live up to God’s ethical standards. They turned their backs, covered their ears, hardened their hearts and would not listen to God’s word (7:11-12). That is why fasting is needed. We should ask if we are similar. If we wonder why God hasn’t answered our prayer, we should reflect on whether we have been listening to him (7:13). In spite of people’s rebellion, God continues to show grace and goodness (8:15). He also gives ethical instructions. As we reflect in prayer or fasting, are we truthful in our relationships? Do we make sound judgments about others? Or do we love to hate?
This section concludes (8:20-23) by reiterating the promise made to Abraham that God’s purpose in blessing Israel was to bless all the nations (Genesis 12:2-3). When the people of God follow him in truth and with justice, our hearts and characters should change, leading to action. Others will notice and be drawn to God. They will want to get to know him because of the good they see in our lives emanating from our relationship with God. Sometimes it takes God’s people addressing injustice for people to recognise that God is just.