Almost all studies of Zechariah break the book into two major sections. We have completed the first, chapters 1-6, and now commence the second, chapters 7-14. In this second section there will be no visions such as took up most of the first part, but the subject matter is largely the same, however different the presentation. That is typical of the Bible. We find the same doctrine in the hymns of the book of Psalms and in the narrative history of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, as we find in the preaching of the prophets and, for that matter, the letters of Paul. The different ways in which the truth is taught not only increase our understanding of biblical teaching but help us to grasp its implications for life.
v.1 This is the last date we will be given in Zechariah. It translates to December, 518 B.C. Some time has passed, as the fourth year is two years after the first of Zechariah’s prophesies (1:1, 7). So this prophecy falls midway between the beginning of the ministry of Zechariah and the completion of the rebuilding of the temple, which we read in Ezra 6:15 occurred in the sixth year of Darius.
The fact that the prophecy was dated with reference to the reign of the Persian emperor, and that the ninth month was called by a Babylonian rather than a Hebrew name, underscores the nature of the Jews’ situation as a people subject to a foreign power and no longer a nation in their own right (cf. Neh. 1:1). That would not really change until 1948 with the creation of the modern state of Israel.
v.2 Bethel was only twelve miles north of Jerusalem, so the people there would have been intimately acquainted with what was happening in the capital.
v.3 The question was a natural one. For a long time now the people of Bethel had fasted in the fifth month, in commemoration of the destruction of the temple which happened in the fifth month of 586 B.C. For nearly seventy years they had fasted in that month to express their repentance before God for the sins that had brought down his judgment upon their heads and to plead with him for mercy and the restoration of their fortunes as the people of God. But the situation seemed to be changing. The temple site was no longer an abandoned ruin. Construction of the new temple was proceeding apace and Jerusalem and its suburbs were being re-inhabited and rebuilt. So their question: was the time for mourning and fasting over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple now over? Was it now time to move on from mourning the past and confessing the old sins? Did the rebuilding of the temple mean that God’s attitude toward his people had changed?
They submitted their inquiry to the Joshua and the other priests and to the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. Obviously one couldn’t turn to Deuteronomy or Leviticus and answer a question like this. They needed the wisdom of their spiritual leadership. No doubt they were expecting a “Yes” or “No” answer.
v.5 The reply was addressed not only to the people of Bethel, but to the entire Jewish population present in what was left of the Promised Land. Nor were the priests excluded. They had been so much of the problem previously, no wonder they were addressed directly. What is more they would have had some responsibility for the public aspects of the fast.
The fast in the seventh month, not mentioned in the question but mentioned in the answer given to it, probably commemorated the assassination of Gedaliah, the Jewish governor the Babylonians had appointed and installed in Jerusalem, which assassination brought to a screeching halt even a semblance of Jewish self-rule. [Duguid, 132] In any case, as so often in Jesus’ teaching, a question is answered with another question.
v.6 The spiritual situation of the people of God was dramatically better than it had been before the exile, but as we know from both Haggai and Zechariah, this generation likewise needed to consider its ways and to take a hard look at its motivations.
It is interesting and important that the Bible is so repetitive in its teaching. In the sixth vision, which we find in 5:1-4, there is a similar warning against hypocrisy and demand for obedience. We can sometimes tire of hearing the same thing over and over again in the Bible, but a wiser response would be to recognize that we wouldn’t hear such warnings as often as we do unless we needed constant reminding. It is all too easy to think that because one has repented once, one is penitent. [Webb, 119] But, as Luther reminded us in the first of his ninety-five theses, biblical repentance is not the work of a moment but a way of life.
v.7 The “south” in the ESV is the Negev — that is, the area south of Jerusalem near Beersheba — and the “lowland” is the Shephelah, the hill country that falls away to the west from Jerusalem and separates the capital from the flat coastal plain that runs north and south in Palestine along the Mediterranean shore.
v.11 The reference of this remark, “But they refused to pay attention…” as the following verses will make clear, is to the generation of the Jews who lived prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets.
What we have in this short chapter is a call to self-examination, one of a great many such summons in the Word of God. The question that was put to the prophets and priests by the people of Bethel was answered with another question: is your fasting like the fasting of your ancestors — hypocritical, insincere, and self-motivated — or is it an expression of true penitence, of real faith in the Lord, and of genuine desire for his blessing, a blessing you know you do not deserve? Is your fasting the expression of a life that is pointed toward the glory of God and lived in obedience to his commandments? In particular, is your life marked by that love and grace toward others that a grateful heart, a humble heart, and a faithful heart aspires to practice? The character of a person’s life and especially his treatment of others is a window on his soul and the index of his real motivations; and motivations are everything to a God who looks on the heart and measures our lives by our hearts.
The reason why fasting provided such a perfect opportunity for Zechariah to put these probing questions to his countrymen is that fasting, in its very nature, seems to be an act of pure religious devotion. Fasting, after all, is the practice of deliberate self-denial. [Webb, 119] But the fact is our hearts are so unreliable, that even here, even in the practice of self-denial itself, we can be serving ourselves and not the Lord. Our motives are seldom fully appreciated even by ourselves, and the full measure of our pride and self-interest is never fully appreciated by any of us. Fasting, especially public fasting, as this would have been, provides a classic opportunity for making a religious show. The Pharisees would be criticized by the Lord Jesus for doing just that with their fasting. What is more, even if fasting were to be done dutifully, even privately, but with no real intention to offer to God the obedience and service of one’s life — if it were done in hopes of satisfying a requirement — checking a box, filling a square — rather than offering one’s heart to the Lord — it would still be the practice of hypocrisy and false religion. In Islam today there are more incidents of fighting Ramadan than during any other month of the year. This is a point Isaiah famously made in his preachingand especially in the chapter 58.
“…they delight to draw near to God. [And then they complain.] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?’ [They’re speaking to God.] [Then God replies,] Behold in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight… Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. … Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house… Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” [58:2-8]
I think we may assume that if the Jews of Zechariah’s day had learned the lessons of Israel’s recent past, and were trusting the Lord for grace to help in time of need, and did love the Lord and were genuinely seeking to honor him with their daily lives, then by all means they could bring their fifth-month fast to an end. But what the counter-question indicated was that whether they continued the fast was immaterial if their hearts and lives were not the Lord’s. That had been precisely their fathers’ mistake: thinking that outward ritual was enough to avail with God; that performing religious rites was more important that living a godly life; that doing the religious thing counted more than faith and love. You have the very same sort of argument and the same summons in the preaching of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah among others, in the preaching of John the Baptist, and in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, some evidence of how timeless the problem is, how susceptible people are to hypocrisy in their religious life, and how hard it is for us honestly to reckon with our motivations.
Ancient near eastern religion, the backdrop of Israel’s religious life, proceeded on the principle of religious externalism. It had thoroughly accommodated itself to externalism. There was no hypocrisy in its rituals because the rituals themselves were all that mattered. The condition of the heart, the promise of the life, the motives were completely immaterial. You didn’t have to do anything for the right reason; you just had to do it. The performance of ritual, the giving of gifts was everything. No one thought the gods cared much about how one lived his life so long as they had been appeased with gifts. Do ut des: “I give so that you will give” was the theory. Neither faith, nor love, nor emotion mattered, though there was some effort to generate ecstasy and ecstatic utterance in many ANE rituals, for the purpose of offering to the gods a more impressive performance. But the Bible stands against that view of God and our relationship to God on every page. God cannot be bought, but he can be loved and served, and will be by those who have experienced his grace. The fact that people all over the world despise hypocrites is some important evidence of the fact that they have been made in the image of the living God not the idols of the ANE!
So we are here summoned to examine ourselves: every one of us, because though the question came from Bethel, the counter-question was addressed to every Jew in the land. And, of course, since we are asked why we observe religious rituals, only the individual himself or herself can answer the question. Even in regard to the conduct of our lives — so much goes unobserved and others who do observe usually see only a small portion of our lives — each of us must answer that question for himself or herself.
This summons to self-examination was a mainstay of the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah as it would later be in the preaching of John and Jesus. In Haggai, as you may remember, twice the people are summoned to “give careful thought to your ways.” And here in Zechariah we find the same.
The importance of self-examination has always been an emphasis in the teaching of the masters of the Christian life. That is important to remember because there have been voices raised against the practice and there are some in our time. Hannah Whitehall Smith in the 19th century claimed that there were only two texts in the entire Bible that recommended self-examination. She would be right only if, by the two texts, she meant the OT and the NT! I’ve already mentioned the former prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and the Sermon on the Mount. But we have this from Paul.
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” [2 Cor. 13:5]
Or this from John.
“Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for…” [2 John 8]
But it is no surprise that someone like Hannah Whitehall Smith, who taught the possibility of sinless perfection, would not be enthusiastic about self-examination! If one wishes to believe himself or herself without sin, it is wise not to look in the mirror too carefully! And nowadays, there are some who emphasize grace to the virtual exclusion of everything else in the Bible who think self-examination dangerous, because it amounts to focusing attention on yourself instead of on Christ, or who think the practice will lead to an overconcentration on our behavior rather than on the work of Christ.
But there are a great many texts in the Bible that remind us how little people really know themselves; how often they imagine that they have better motives than they do, and how quick they are to defend themselves when they are caught in the wrong. That is why the Puritans insisted that realistic self-knowledge was absolutely essential for living the Christian life and for growing in that life. [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 194] And it was essential because of who the Christian is.
- In the first place the Christian is a man, a human being. He has been endowed with understanding, affection, and will or the power of choice. Man was made by God to know what is good, to love what is good, and to choose to do what is good. There are intellectual, emotional, and behavioral standards we are obliged to meet. Therefore we need to know whether we are meeting them or not.
- But in the second place the Christian is a fallen human being. Sin not only alienated him from God, it alienated him from himself; it blinded himself to himself. His understanding, his affections, and his will have all been profoundly corrupted. He can’t count on them to lead him in the right direction. He now has within himself an ingrained spirit of rebellion against God, a delight in what God disapproves, and a tendency to choose the bad instead of the good. He has to face up to his defects for they are many and profound.
- In the third place the Christian is a redeemed human being. He has been set free from sin’s power. There is now the possibility of life as he was created to live it. But if we can live that new life, we must live it.
- In the fourth place the Christian is a new creature in Christ. His understanding, his emotions or feelings or loves and hatreds, and his will have been changed to love God, to love what is good, and to choose to do it. Christians want to live to the glory of God and Christ. And if they want to do that, they need to know how to do that. Self-examination is part of the “how.” But regeneration also makes the human heart a battlefield, as the flesh, the remnants of his old nature, tirelessly disputes the supremacy of the spirit. [Packer, 194-198]
In other words, our nature as Christians requires that we pay attention to ourselves. What is happening in my life? What am I thinking? Have I set my loves and my hatreds on the right things? Am I living by faith? Am I expressing my gratitude to God with my behavior and my speech? Do I love and enjoy the right things? Our deep and abiding sinfulness, the temptations of the Devil, the deep ruts of sin that we have allowed to form in our lives, make it essential that we are on top of our lives, constantly inspecting ourselves inside and out; that we are living intentionally as Christians. And that is just another way of saying that we need to practice self-examination. Bunyan thought so. He has a character in his The Holy War, Mr. Pry-well, who, like David was always praying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” and was always looking to and at himself. He was, Bunyan tells us, a great lover of Mansoul. That is what motivated him to “pry” or to “peer” into his soul. He wanted to know what was there so he could correct what was bad, and to cultivate what was good. And, Bunyan tells us, he judged his soul only according to the Word of God.
The Puritans were masters of the art of self-examination. Why? Because they thought that every Christian ought to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. But in order to grow one had to analyze one’s life according to the Word of God, identify what was wrong with it, and work to eliminate those defects and to replace them with true righteousness. No one thought more carefully about this, or at greater length than the great Puritan writers such as Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Richard Baxter. If you want to improve a machine you do so by identifying its defects or weaknesses and correcting them. If you want to improve an athlete you do the same. If you want to improve a student, similarly. Well, so with the Christian life. Such improvement doesn’t happen by accident; a person does it by seeing what is wrong and putting what is wrong right.
But the Puritans were not the only ones to see the importance of self-examination and self-reckoning on the part of Christians. Long before them Augustine had written: “The beginning of intelligence is to know yourself and to know yourself a sinner.” Calvin says something similar in the first sentence of his Institutes. Self-knowledge is half the knowledge you need. The knowledge of God is the other half.
But in our experience few people really do know themselves. You know the famous lines of Robert Burns:
O would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us.
Why? Well, isn’t it true that we are constantly noticing attitudes and behavior in others that seem unworthy or annoying to us but which they clearly are entirely comfortable with. They don’t realize that we are thinking ill of them. They may not imagine that we are annoyed by their behavior. Some people are gossips, others talk so much that they dominate virtually any conversation and talk almost exclusively about themselves, others are unkind or harsh in their judgments, or they are lazy, or irresponsible in some other way, or vain, and on and on it goes. People do not see themselves as we see them. In fact, nobody sees you the same way you see yourself. It is a fact of life. It is so much a fact of life that even pagan moralists have recommended self-examination as essential to a truly good life. This is Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ!
Let not sleep come upon thy languid eyes,
Before each daily action thou hast scanned.
What done; what left undone; what done amiss.
From first to last examine all; and then,
Blame what is wrong, in what is right rejoice.
But, of course, as we read in v. 5 and then in vv. 9-10, the standards by which Christians examine themselves are very different than the lax standards the world would use. We care that our thoughts and actions be pleasing to the living God. Given that we do not deserve God’s favor but have been given it nonetheless, our actions are to be motivated by gratitude and love. The Lord expects us to imitate him in kindness and generosity to the needy, which is, after all, the very same kindness and generosity he displayed toward us in our great need. Such things are what we ought to be looking for when we examine ourselves.
Now, to be sure, there is a kind of self-examination that is unhelpful. There are people who are inclined to be morbidly introspective. They are constantly examining their inner and outer life, but in a way that amounts to an over-concentration on the self. They forget what self-examination is for. They forget that the point is to honor and glorify God in their lives. They forget that Christ has given them to freedom to grow in grace and holiness of heart and life. As Ian Tait, our English pastor friend, reminded us in a sermon on self-examination he preached here nearly 30 years ago, there are some who take the light of God’s word into the cellar of their hearts, but take a camp-bed down with them. The point of self-examination in the Bible is to correct oneself according to the Word of God, to avail oneself of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s help to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, and to give one’s life back to God more completely. The point of considering our ways is not to grovel in our failures but to repent of them and move on and up, as Christians can.
It may be true that in some traditions, even Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, the practice of self-examination, by which was meant the regular inspection of the inner life to see if one was truly in possession of salvation, came dangerously close to pulling up the roots of our faith to see if it were growing. But no one can doubt that the Bible, here and in a great many other places, urges us not to live an unexamined life but to hold ourselves to account for a sincere faith, a heart-felt love for God and man, and for obedience to God’s commandments.
And no wonder. It is perfectly understandable psychologically. How can we grow as Christians, how can we improve, how can we mature if we don’t see clearly what is wrong, or what is juvenile, or what is incomplete about our lives and in need of change? And how will we see that unless we look? It is very easy; it takes no effort, to slide virtually unwittingly into very bad spiritual habits, to become indolent, to accommodate one’s sins, to form habits of self-centeredness. It takes some effort, however, to force yourself to face facts, to acknowledge that things are not as they ought to be in your heart and life. It takes some time and some effort carefully to compare your own life with the teaching of the Word of God. Our lives are in need of constant overhaul. But most of us will admit that we can go for days, for weeks, for months, even for years without facing up to that fact and taking stock of the life we are actually living before God day by day.
One of the true saints of the 18th century Great Awakening in England was a man by the name of John Fletcher. He was actually a Swiss émigré, but spent most of his adult life as a Church of England pastor and associate of the Wesleys. He is one of those men, like Robert Murray McCheyne, more famous for his life and character than for his accomplishments as a pastor or social reformer, though he was influential in both those roles and in a very positive way. He lived, to be sure, in a day when people lived at a slower pace. But this is what he recommended to his parishioners as a way of examining themselves and so keeping themselves on task to present their souls and bodies as living sacrifices to God, holy and acceptable to him, to prevent them from being conformed to this world and rather to transform and renew their hearts and minds to live according to the will of God. These, he said, are the questions to put to yourself day by day.
- Did I awake spiritual, and was I watchful in keeping my mind from wandering this morning when I was rising?
- Have I this day got nearer to God in times of prayer, or have I given way to a lazy, idle spirit?
- Has my faith been weakened by unwatchfulness, or quickened by diligence this day?
- Have I this day walked by faith and eyed God in all things?
- Have I denied myself in all unkind words and thoughts? Have I delighted in seeing others preferred before me?
- Have I made the most of my precious time, as far as I had light, strength, and opportunity?
- Have I kept the issues of my heart in the means of grace, so as to profit by them?
- What have I done this day for the souls and bodies of God’s dear saints?
- Have I laid out anything to please myself when I might have saved the money for the cause of God?
- Have I governed well my tongue this day, remembering that in a multitude of words there wanteth not sin?
- In how many instances have I denied myself this day?
- Do my life and conversation adorn the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Whew! But it is not hard to see, is it, that if we put such questions to ourselves on an even somewhat regular basis and required an honest answer from ourselves in return, we would be much more conscious of the character of the life we are living each day before God and others, we would remain much more aware of our sins, and much more likely to strive to repent of them and put on new obedience. You and I have a soul, a spiritual life, and crucial to its health is our constant attention to its condition. There is a second law of thermo dynamics in the spiritual realm, things run down not up. They fall apart. They don’t create themselves in ever new and wonderful ways. At least they don’t without the injection of energy, attention and effort into the system of our spiritual life. That is biblical self-examination.
When I began my attempt to lose weight a few years ago, [I never really wanted to lose weight; for years I didn’t. I liked to eat and still do and like to eat a lot of things that are good for gaining weight, not losing it.] I learned very early that crucial to success was forcing myself to weigh in every day. If I hadn’t lost weight I was put on my mettle to a greater measure of self-sacrifice with regard to food; and if I had lost weight, I was encouraged to try still harder in the expectation that even greater results would follow. But what very soon became altogether clear to me was that if I rarely weighed myself at all, very little would happen. Out of sight, out of mind. You ladies may say, “A watched pot never boils.” But I say, “An unwatched scale never falls.” Well, so with our Christian lives.
It is altogether too easy to fast or to come to worship or to speak with others or to do one’s work through the day or to relate to one’s wife or husband or children without taking stock. Why am I doing this? Did I say or do the right thing? Are my motives the motives of a Christian? Am I doing it in the spirit in which it ought to be done? Am I loving God and my neighbor? Am I keeping this commandment or that? Am I demonstrating my devotion to Jesus Christ in the way that I treat others? Questions like that.
The Lord put these questions to Zechariah’s contemporaries precisely because he thought it essential that they answer them. Honestly. Ask yourself such questions and answer honestly. Always, as in Zechariah’s time, examine yourself against the Word of God. In Zechariah’s day they could compare their lives to the teaching of the prophets, as we read in vv. 7, 8, and 12. We have greater privileges. We have the entire Word of God. Examine yourselves, do it carefully, sincerely, and honestly, and, if the Spirit of God dwells in you, you will not long remain the same.