The Question (7:1-3)
God has concluded sending visions to his prophet Zechariah, showing the people the great things that lie ahead if they will return to him and build the temple. With the temple work underway, there is a question that arises among the people. They want to know if they should continue mourning and fasting in the fifth month like they have been doing all these years. It is important to know why they have been mourning and fasting in the fifth month for all these years. This fast marked the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 70 years ago. We read in 2 Kings 25:8-9 tells us that the temple fell on the seventh day of the fifth month. So for 70 years the people have been mourning and fasting because of the temple’s destruction. But now that the temple is in the process of being rebuilt, the question is if they should continue mourning and fasting. The Lord has two answers to give to the people which were not only instructive to them, but teaches us so much about what God is looking for from us as his people.
The Reason for Worship (7:4-7)
The first message is a question from God to the people. When you fasted and mourned for all those years, were you really doing it for the Lord? God is wanting them to search their hearts and consider the motivation for what they were doing. God points out that they were doing these things for themselves and not for God. It appears that what started off as a truly broken heart about the temple’s destruction had turned into a mere ritual. They were fasting and weeping but it really was not at all because they were sad or moved about what had happened in the past. Their worship had become selfish and insincere. These annual events had turned into heartless traditions.
You will notice in verse 7 that God reminds the people that this is the same message that was given to them by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem. God wants repentance, not ritual. God wants transformation, not tradition. When we worship, we must be asking ourselves and examining ourselves as to why we are doing what we are doing. Why are we here? Are we here because we want to worship God or is there some other reason within us? When we sing, are we doing it for the Lord or for ourselves? When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, are we participating in a ritual or is it a heart of repentance moved by the power of the cross? God has been so clear that he does not want traditions or rituals.
Then Samuel said: Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22 CSB)
You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; you are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God. (Psalm 51:16–17 CSB)
If you do something just to do it, then you did not do it for the Lord but for yourself. We are just appeasing our own conscience or someone else’s expectations. But we are not seeking God’s will if you just do it. God cares about the reason. This is the examination process that we must go through regularly. We must never let anything we do for the Lord turn into ritual. It is interesting that some people will say that doing things regularly turns things into ritual. I want us to see that even annual acts of worship can become ritual, just as it had for these people. So it is not about frequency or infrequency. It is always about the necessity of engaging the heart when we approach prayer, bible study, singing, the Lord’s Supper, giving, serving, or any other action we do for the glory of God. But God has more to say to the people. Notice what the second message is in verses 8-10.
The Expectation (7:8-10)
When you read verses 8-10 you can see that God’s expectations for his people had not changed through all the years. Administer true justice. Show mercy and compassion to others. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless. Do not oppress the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil in your hearts against others. This is the same message that the prophet Micah gave two hundred years earlier (cf. Micah 6:8). The right heart will lead to the right actions.
You know what God wants. I think this is an important message for us to keep in our minds. We know that God wants transformation, not tradition. We know that God wants repentance, not ritual. You know what is right. You know what God wants from you. Do right. Do good. Show compassion. Show care. Be fair. Do not oppress. Do not devise harm against someone else. Real repentance will bring positive changes in our lives. We will live differently if we have true repentance generated from the heart. Often the reason why we do not see life change is because we are not truly repenting from the heart. We are not trying to truly transform our lives. We hope that a little more ritual will bring the change. But the heart has to be cut. This is the point that the Lord makes in the last section of this chapter.
The Failure (7:11-14)
The message has been clear and has not changed. So what is the problem? Look at verse 11. They refused to pay attention. They turned a stubborn shoulder to the Lord. They closed their ears so that they would not hear. They made their hearts as hard as a diamond so that they would not obey the law nor the words the prophets spoke to them. I want us to see that this is a choice we make with God. We choose to not pay attention. We choose to turn a stubborn shoulder to him. We choose to close our ears and not listen. We choose make our hearts so hard that nothing God says or does will break through.
Now here is why this is important to grasp. Look at verse 13. When God was calling to his people and they would not listen, then when the people called God would not listen. If we are not going to listen to God, then why do we call out to him? Why would we pray if we are not going to listen to him? When we show that we are not going to listen to God, then we want a one way relationship. We won’t listen to God but we want God to listen to us. But God says it does not work like that. You cannot be fasting, mourning, crying out, or praying if you have no interest in listening to God’s answer.
So bring all of these messages together. Their faith was merely a decoration. They did not have a real devotion to God. They were not listening to God. They were not doing what they knew God wanted them to do. But they made sure to keep the fasts and continue to keep their worship days. Listen to how other prophets made this point.
I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21–24 CSB)
Please put this picture into modern terms. Can you imagine God saying that he hates it when we come together on Sunday? Can you imagine him saying to us that he hates it when we sing? Can you imagine him saying that he hates when we partake of the Lord’s Supper? Can you imagine him saying that he hates it when we read our Bibles? Can you imagine him saying that he hates it when we give or serve?
Whether we are seeking justice, doing right, teaching others, serving others, helping others, or participating in our congregational acts of worship, God is watching the heart. God knows the real reason why you do or do not do what you are doing. God wants us to examine ourselves to see if our faith is just a decoration or if it is a true devotion to him. God is asking us who we worshiped today. Did we worship God with the right heart and the right motivation? Or did we worship because we had other motivations and other reasons? Whatever we are doing we must let God’s question enter our hearts. Did we really do it for God? Are we doing it for him or for ourselves? Are we doing it for him or for someone else? Are we doing this for his glory or for our own?
So let us end by considering the conclusion God is drawing for us. God does not listen to us if we are not listening to him. God wants a relationship with us. He wants to be our Father. He wants our worship to matter. He wants to respond to us. But we have to listen to him. God is not listening if we are not listening. Our stubbornness gets us nowhere with God. What God wants is a repentant heart that responds to the grace and goodness of God. God accepts worship from sincere people who desire to follow his ways and do what is right. God is asking us to be transformed from serving ourselves to serving him. Only when we do this will we avoid God’s wrath (cf. 7:12,14). God wants hearts that seek him, not lip service to his worship.