The Question About Fasting
Righteousness is one of the most important themes in the entire Bible. God is not only a righteous God, He also demands that we be in a right relationship with Him. Because we are sinners, we are NOT in a righteous relationship with God. For this reason God sends forth His righteous Son Jesus to die for our sins so that we might be in a righteous relationship with God.
God though is not only interested that we come into a righteous relationship with Him. He also expects us to live a righteous life--the very purpose He made us right with Him in the first place. There is a problem though. We are sinners and cannot produce righteous lives; just like a fig tree cannot produce olives, so unrighteous people cannot produce righteous lives. Because we cannot live righteous lives in our own strength and power, the righteous Jesus comes to live within us to produce that righteous life, the life that He Himself experiences.
What then does it mean to live a righteous life? One of the ways people have tried to live a righteous life is fasting. If you even just read the NT casually, you will see that fasting played an important role not only in the lives of the NT saints but also in the life of Christ Himself: 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. In the passage before us we see the Jews who have returned from Babylon raise a question about fasting. Zechariah's response not only gives us insight into fasting but into a righteous life itself as a whole.
THE SITUATION (7:1-3)
It is December 518 B.C. The Jewish exiles who returned to Judah from Babylon now have been in Judah for the past 17 years. Jeremiah had prophesied that the people would be in exile for 70 years. The Babylonians had first devastated Jerusalem in 605 B.C.; 70 years from that date would be 535 B.C., the year the exiles started returning home from Babylon under the decree of Cyrus and rebuilding the Temple. On the other hand, the Temple itself was not destroyed until 586 B.C. The Temple was completed 70 years (516 B.C.) to the year that it was destroyed. (There may be different ways then to view the 70 years of exile as Jeremiah predicted.)
During all this time the Jews had been fasting to remember three important dates in their history:
THE PROPHET'S RESPONSE (7:4+8:23)
Simply Not Eating is NOT Fasting, NOT True Righteousness (7:4-7)
Zechariah informed the representatives that for 70 years the people had actually NOT been fasting; they had simply not been eating. How could that be? Isn't NOT eating the same thing as fasting? No. A lot of people don't eat; they call that dieting. Others who don't eat are actually fasting. In the first instance dieting is about yourself, not eating so that you can lose weight; fasting though is about God, focusing on Him. For 70 years the people had dieted spiritually, hoping God would look at them and feel sorry for them, and restore to them all the material blessings they had enjoyed before the Babylonian invasion. In other words, their not eating was all about THEM! That didn't impress God. God had wanted them to NOT eat so that they could fast, that is, focus on God and get back into a right relationship with Him.
All of this sounds very familiar. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns about doing "righteous" deeds for YOUR sake rather than for GOD'S sake. People who give to charities and make a big deal about it publicly are not giving to charities for the sake of the poor. They are doing it so that they can get public attention. People who zero in on praying in public don't do so so that they might commune with God; they do it so that people will be so impressed that they are such spiritual people. For this reason Jesus commands that we give to charity so secretively that even our right hand does not know what our left hand is doing, that we go into our closet and pray in private. Only in that way can we be sure that we are actually giving to charity and praying because we are doing it unto the Lord and not unto ourselves.
What is sad is that this was not the first time a prophet had warned the people about this. Before the Babylonians invaded Judah, while the Jews were living in the land of plenty, the prophets were warning the people against such behavior. The Jews though refused to take heed to the prophets' warning. The result was that they lost everything. What had once been a land flowing with milk and honey, even in the southern region (the Negeb), was now a land devastated by war. The same though is applying to the Jews in Zechariah's day. They may not have much, but they are in danger of losing even what they do have if they do not respond positively to the prophet's warning.
True Righteousness (7:8-10)
If dieting spiritually does not impress God, then what does?
Next, notice that in the third case the Lord requires that we extend special treatment to the widow, orphan and alien. Why do Zechariah, Moses, other prophets, and the NT focus on extending special kindness to these three groups of people? Primarily we extend special treatment to the most vulnerable and helpless in society to demonstrate our faith that Christ helped US who were vulnerable and helpless. Helping the vulnerable is the ONLY way that we can show that we believe that Christ the strong man helped us who were weak (2 Cor. 8:9).
So why should we fast if it is not TRUE righteousness? First of all, many times fasting shows true contrition for sins. For 3 days Paul went without eating and drinking because he is so shaken up over the realization that he has been persecuting God the Son Himself (Acts 9:9). It wasn't that he decided he would fast; fasting overwhelmed him. He simply couldn't eat because of the overwhelming experience on the road to Damascus. This showed true contrition over sin.
The second reason to fast is to intensify prayer. Fasting doesn't make you more spiritual. It simply makes you more focused in your prayers. We see this in the church at Antioch in which the disciples were praying and fasting (Acts 13:2, 3). During that time of prayer and fasting the Holy Spirit sent out Barnabas and Paul to launch the first great missionary journey from the church in Antioch. Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and nights in order to be able to conquer Satan during His time of temptation. We wonder why we don't see the mighty movement of God in our midst. It's probably because we don't engage in intensive prayer.
Warning If They Do Not Obey the Lord (7:11-14)
In order to motivate the people to obey the Lord, Zechariah reminds them of the negative response of their ancestors and the disaster which fell upon them when they disobeyed the Lord.
First, the people responded to God's word by turning a stiff shoulder towards the prophets and God's word. The idea is that of an ox which stiffens his shoulder so that it becomes difficult to attach the yoke to him so that he can be useful. Second, the people responded by hardening their hearts like flint against the words of the prophets. Flint was considered one of the hardest elements in the ancient world. By characterizing their hearts as flint, Zechariah was saying that the people were stubborn and totally refused to respond positively to the Lord.
Because the people hardened their hearts against the Lord, disaster fell upon the people. When that did happen, God had finally got their attention--but too late. God had had it with the Jewish people by the time of the Babylonian invasion. For over 400 years God had pled with them to turn to Him. After 400 years He allows the Babylonians to devastate their land. THAT got their attention. So when things get rough, they turn to the Lord. In the past the Lord had listened and delivered them after a short spell of trouble (the Book of Judges is the primary example). Not this time though. Enough was enough. God is slow to judge, but when He does judge, judgment comes swiftly and irrevocably.