By Sam E. Stone
The people of Israel were taken captive to Babylon. After 70 years, God allowed a remnant of his people to return to the promised land. There they set about to rebuild the temple. Although this effort began with much excitement and devotion, the project slowed considerably (Haggai 1). The Lord sent Haggai and Zechariah as prophets to encourage the people to complete the task.
Zechariah was evidently a young man at this time (2:4). Earlier in the book, Zechariah and his credentials were presented (1:1-6). As we noted two weeks ago in Jeremiah 7, receiving the word of the Lord was part of the usual formula denoting the divine inspiration of a prophet. Elsewhere in his book Zechariah confirmed the fact that God personally gave him this message for the people (see 1:1-7; 4:6, 8; 6:9; 7:1, 4; 8:1, 18).
Zechariah did not mince words. Previous generations had rejected God’s call for obedience. For this, they had been punished. Now this new generation had the chance to make things right with the Lord again. “‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3). God called for repentance by his people. They needed to demonstrate their commitment by returning to him.
Some Jews had begun special fasts to mourn the ravaging of the temple by the Babylonians. They asked, should we continue these fasts? (Zechariah 7:1-7). The prophet told them what God said: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Though the people had been fasting, they had not changed their lives. God directed them to keep the moral precepts of the law and to love their neighbors.
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Both the Old and New Testaments make abundantly clear God’s concern for the less fortunate and those often forgotten (Deuteronomy 10:18; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 7:5-7; James 1:27; 1 John 3:16-18). Albert Barnes noted, “The love of our neighbor presupposes the love of God, from which it springs.” Jesus made it clear that his followers were to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). The ideal king would protect the oppressed and needy members of society. No honest person can claim ignorance of what God desires for those in need. Zechariah appealed for the people to keep the moral precepts of the law and practice true love of their neighbors in both public and private life.
Zechariah 7:11, 12a
Despite the clarity about what God desired, the people refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. Like disobedient children, they remained defiant! Their pre-exilic forefathers rebelled against the Lord’s revealed will and stopped up their ears (Isaiah 6:10; 33:15). Again and again the Jewish people resisted what was obviously God’s will for them. Like rebellious horses, they could not be broken. They made their hearts as hard as flint. A stony heart cannot receive an impression (Ezekiel 11:19). The New Testament warned of a similar condition (Hebrews 6:7, 8).
Zechariah summed up the Lord’s evaluation like this: When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen. The punishment fits the crime. The prophet explained that God had scattered them among all the nations in punishment for their covenant disobedience. What had been a pleasant land (Psalm 106:24; Jeremiah 3:19) was reduced to desolation, one wide wasteland.
God’s judgment on the people could also be tempered with mercy and forgiveness though. G. N. M. Collins explained: “As they had been an object of cursing among the heathen . . . so now they would be an example of blessedness. But to inherit the promise they must deal faithfully with each other, and execute judgment in their legal assemblies, eschewing malice and false swearing.”
The results of rejecting God’s divine words are summed up by James E. Smith: “Through the former prophets Yahweh cried again and again to the people, urging them to repent. Israel, however, would not listen . . . . The exile was the punishment for not listening to the word of God. This passage hints that a similar fate will befall the post-exilic community if they refuse to listen to the new generation of God’s spokesmen.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.