Inspiring Instructions from Zechariah
By Paul Robison

In 1993, a 31 year old woman, burst into a hospital nursery at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angles, carrying a .38 caliber handgun.  She had come to gun down a nurse whom she accused of stealing her husband.  She fired 6 shots and hit the nurse in the wrist and stomach.  The nurse fled, and the woman chased her to the emergency room.  With blood in her clothes and a hot pistol in hand, the attacker was met by another nurse, who did the unthinkable.

She walked calmly toward the gun-toting woman, hugged her, and spoke words of comfort.  The assailant said that she didn't have anything to live for, and that her husband had been stolen.  "You're in pain," said the second nurse.

"I'm sorry, but everybody has pain in their lives. . . . I understand, and we can work it out."  As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finger on the trigger.  Once she lifted the gun up as if to shoot herself, but the nurse pushed her arm down and continued to hold her.  At last, the attacker gave the gun to the nurse.  She was disarmed by a hug and some reassuring words.  Isn't it amazing what compassion can do? (Tripp in Rowell).

A couple of prophets in the Old Testament ministered to the Jews at a time when they were very frustrated.  One of those prophets was named Zechariah, and we've already seen through the passages read this morning that he had much to say about the Messiah.  But he also had much to say, along with his fellow prophet Haggai, to the people of his day.  Here's just a little background material on the situation in Judah.  King Cyrus of Persia, after defeating the Babylonians, issued a decree in 539 that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.  The first group of Jews to return came in 537, and began rebuilding the temple in 536.  Soon the Jews' enemies in the area heard about his and wrote a letter to another Persian king named Artaxerxes, who wrote back saying that the building on the temple should stop.  The foundations and the altar had been erected, but the work came to a standstill after this king's decree.  "During [the next 16 years of neglect] the people of Judah lost their vision and sense of spiritual purpose" (NSB).  "The condition of the Jews [was] wretched and miserable.  Things in [Judah] were not as [the returnees] had anticipated.  The cities and houses lay in rubble, the walls were torn down, and the land had been neglected for 50 years.  . . . As a whole, the picture was quite discouraging [and frustrating]" (Hailey).

God had tried to get the people's attention through crop failures and drought since they were neglecting His worship and working on their own homes (Haggai ch. 1).  Then God sent two prophets around 520 to stir up the people to rebuild, Haggai and Zechariah.  Zechariah's name means "God remembers."

Then, another letter was written to another Persian king named Darius, and he checked the royal records and found King Cyrus's decree.  So he wrote back saying that the work on the temple should continue, and those in the area around Judah should give them the needed supplies!  So, the work on the temple resumed under Haggai and Zechariah's encouragement.  This outline for Zechariah captures the main ideas:

God calls His people to repent (1:1-6)
God encourages His people to trust him through visions (1:7-6:15)
God instructs His people (7:1-8:23)
God redeems His people (9:1-14:21).

Our lesson is entitled: “Inspiring Instructions from Zechariah.”  So, you can see that this lesson is coming from that third section where God is instructing His people.

Now let's note the context for these instructions by looking over at chapter 7. 

We discover here that we are in the fourth year of King Darius' reign in the month of Chislev, so the date would be December of 518 BC.  We see that a group of men were sent to the temple to pray and to check with the priests, and Haggai and Zechariah, about a matter.  Verse 3 contains their question: "Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for many years?"

You see, in the fifth month of 586, Jerusalem had fallen, and the people were deported.  So, these Jews had some annual fasts in order to remember these sad events.  God had commanded the Jews to fast on the day of atonement, but these fasts were ones that the Jews added to remember their losses—the loss of their freedom, the loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the temple.  Now, that Jerusalem was getting back on its feet, and the temple was being rebuilt, these Jews were wondering if they should keep on having these annual fasts since it was beginning to seem somewhat inappropriate.  The Jews were thinking that band-aids would cure their cancer, but God shows that radical surgery was necessary.  God begins to answer this question through the prophet Zechariah, and His answer is interesting because He challenges the Jews before giving them a direct response.  Notice verse 5: "Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: 'When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those 70 years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?  When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?  Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?'"  God's initial response required some profound spiritual introspection.  What had begun many decades earlier as an event to show genuine sorrow had become "mere ritual performed legalistically" just to honor tradition (Klein).  There was self-pity for their physical condition, but there was no genuine repentance nor any changes towards obediently practicing the law's commands.  If the Jews would have obeyed what the earlier prophets had taught, then the land would be pulsating with life, activity, and prosperity instead of empty, ruined, and decaying cities and buildings, a stark reminder of the deportation and depopulation that had taken place (Baldwin).  Now what was it that the former prophets had been teaching that God wanted the Jews to put into practice?  That brings us up to some inspiring instructions that God gives to the Jews and us in both chapters 7 and 8.

As we consider these instructions, keep in mind that God wanted these actions to be practiced ABOVE those involved in those annual fasts to remember hard times.  First of all, God says in verse 9: "Execute true justice!"  True justice involved faithful and consistent decisions that the Jews would make in all their dealings with each other.  "Human clannishness and [greed for] gain were to give place among God's people to generosity, friendliness, and practical help.  This was justice in God's sight" (Baldwin).  This was Amos all over again: "Let justice run down as water and righteousness as mighty stream" (Amos 5:24)!  Even after 70 years in captivity, they still had not learned the importance of not cheating and dealing righteously with each other.  Have we learned that lesson?  Are we executing true justice in our dealings with each other?  Someone made this remark: "I was hungry, and you formed a humanities club to discuss my condition.  I was imprisoned, but you never tried to make a visit.  I was without clothes, and you debated the morality of my appearance.  I was sick, and you never came by or offered to hold my hand.  I was lonely, but you never tried to make any contact whatsoever.  Oh, yes, you seem close to God, but I'm still very hungry, and lonely, and cold" (Swindoll).  The apostle John admonishes us in 1 John 3:18: "My little children, let us not love in word and tongue, but in deed and in truth."   Let's execute true justice!

The next instruction is also seen in verse 9: "Show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother."  The word "mercy" here means "steadfast grace," and it’s often used to show God's steadfast grace towards Israel.  The word "compassion" is derived from the word for "womb" and points to a mother's gentleness displayed to her children.  Someone else gave this definition: "Did you ever take a real trip down inside the broken heart of a friend?  To feel the sob of the soul—the raw, red crucible of emotional agony?  To have this become almost as much yours as that of your soul-crushed neighbor?  Then, to sit down with him—and silently weep?  This is the beginning of compassion."

This sounds much like the prophet Micah all over again: "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8)?  Let's show mercy and compassion to others!

The third instruction is found in the first part of verse 10 and is repeated in other parts of the Old Testament: "Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor."  Don't oppress the helpless!  A lady tells about a teenage Indian boy who climbed aboard a Greyhound bus, paid the fair, and then sat down behind her.  It was February, and the bus was traveling from Flagstaff, AZ to Albuquerque, NM.  The night was cold, and the youth was soon asleep in the warm bus.  After 20 minutes, he got up, walked to the front of the bus, and asked the driver if they were near his destination.  "We passed that a long time ago," the driver snapped, “Why didn't you get off?"  The young man's shoulders drooped, and he returned to his seat.  He had barely sat down, when he rose again and went to the driver.  "Will you stop and let me off?  I'll walk back."  "No!  It's too far and too cold.  You'd freeze to death.  You'll have to go to Albuquerque, and then take a bus back."  Disappointment showed in his walk as he returned to his seat.  "Were you asleep?" I asked him.

"Yes, and my sister was waiting for me at the station."  He dropped into his seat behind me.  I knew the hard living conditions of these Indians, and especially the teens.  There was really no room for them at home, but they really weren't ready to venture out on their own either.  We came nearer to the big city, and I thought that he must be wondering what he'd do after our arrival.  I turned to him and asked, "Are you afraid?"  "Yes," he said in a 'I-hate-to-admit-it" way.  "Stay with me," I said, "I'll help you get on the right bus back."  I talked to the driver: "Will you please check with the return driver, so he need not pay the return fare?"  "OK," the driver reluctantly agreed.

"Everything will be alright," I told the teen.  "You need not worry about anything."  His eyes said, "Thank you!"  We rode on for about 10 more minutes.

Then his hand tapped my shoulder.  I turned to see my young friend leaning toward me.  In a reverent voice he asked: "Are you a Christian?"  James tells that pure religion is also helping the helpless and keeping ourselves unspotted from the world (Jam. 1:27).  Don't oppress the helpless!

The next instruction is also seen in verse 10: "Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother."  You know, evil deeds, like fire, can be hidden for a short time, but the smoke can't be hidden (McKenzie).  Our job in the church is to get rid of evil, not to play with it, to dwell on it, or to supervise it (Ibid.).

The apostle Paul plainly states: "Abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thessa-lonians 5:22).  If you're still in Zechariah, look over at 8:17: "Let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor."  Doesn't this second repetition of the same basic command show that we'd better work hard to guard our hearts against thinking evil against another?  Don't plan evil against others!

The next instruction is: Don't be stubborn toward God's Word!  Zechariah graphically illustrates this in three ways.  Look at verses 11-12: "But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped up their ears so that they could not hear.  Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets."  The translation "they shrugged their shoulders" is too mild.  Literally, the text says, "They presented a stubborn shoulder."  Imagine an ox trying to stiffen every muscle in his shoulders in refusal of wearing a yoke.  They stiffened their shoulders, stopped up their ears, and hardened their hearts like flint when it came to obeying God's word!  Zechariah says that even though God's Holy Spirit had inspired the prophets to say what they did, the Jews had stubbornly refused to hear and to obey!  Could that same thing happen to us?  Someone wrote this interesting little poem: "I supposed I knew my Bible, reading piece-meal, hit or miss; now a bit of John or Matthew, [with] a snatch of Genesis.  But I found a thorough reading was a different thing it do, and the way was unfamiliar when I read the Bible through.  You, who treat the Crown of Writings, as you treat no other book—just a paragraph disjointed or a quick, impatient look—try a worthier procedure, try a broad and steady view; you will [learn] with greater rapture when you read the Bible through," (Wells in Swindoll)!  We have a great reading program going, so get on board!  Don't be stubborn toward God's Word!

The next instruction is found in chapter 8.  Chapter 7 was God's judgment, but chapter 8 is God's promise (Klein).  Isn't God gracious to give His people both?

Now look at verse 15, which follows several promises of God concerning the restoration of Jerusalem: "So again in these days, I am determined to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  Do not fear."  Judah found it easier to mourn her losses during her annual fasts than to repent and express sorrow over their sinful hearts and harsh attitudes.  So God reassures them that brighter days are ahead, and He will bless them.  Therefore, they need not be afraid, especially when things around them look run down, and they felt frustrated.  A man in Georgia wrote this note in July 1999 after killing his wife, his two children, and nine co-workers: "I have been dying since October.  I was up at night so afraid, so terrified, that I could be that afraid while awake.  It has taken its toll.  I have come to hate this life and this system of things.  I have come to have no hope."  In contrast to this, the New Testament uses the command "Fear not!" about 15 times.  One of those is Jesus' statement in Revelation 1:17, which gives us great hope because of His resurrection: "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last, I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.  Amen."  Since He lives forever, Jesus will be with us when this world ends, and eternity begins.

Look beyond the moment, and don't fear!

The next instruction is found in 8:16: "Speak each man truth to his neighbor."

Someone has rightly observed:  "Straightforward dealings and reliability are the foundation of a stable society" (Baldwin).  The apostle Paul remembers this passage and uses it in his exhortation to the Christians in Ephesus.  He says in Ephesians 4:25: "Therefore, put away lying.  'Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,' for we are members of one another."  ". . . Christians break the bonds of love and fellowship . . . when they try to deceive one another. . . . When members are open and perfectly truthful one with another, the body will work in harmony, and therefore, [it will function] efficiently" (Foulkes).  "If you do not like what the preacher did, or that decision that the elders made, or you have something against your brother or sister, you need to deal with it truthfully, and in love.  Because if you do not, you will be crippling this body" (Bullard)!  Let's speak truth to each other!

The next instructions are found in 8:17: "'And do not love a false oath.  For all these are things that I hate,' says the Lord."  In Proverbs 6:16-19, we also find that God hates six things, and three of those are a lying tongue, a heart that devises wicked plans, and a false witness who speaks lies.  Now Proverbs was written 500 years before Zechariah, so God is very consistent isn't He?  Jesus later taught us not to take oaths, but just to always speak the truth so that our yes means yes and our no means no (Matthew 6:37).  What God hates we should hate.  Our obedience shows that we want to honor God's character.  So our relationship with Him and His perspective forms the basis for our righteous conduct.  We strive to be holy, just as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15).  Let's put away falsehood from our lives!

The next instruction is found in 8:19, and this is now God's direct answer to the question about fasting that was raised in 7:3: "The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah."  Turn your fasts into feasts!  "It was now time to forget the fasts over a destroyed city and temple, and to begin again with new attitudes and new hopes" (Baldwin, Hailey).  There are two other quick lessons based on this passage.  Hang in there!  Listen carefully!  First of all, relationships should take precedent over rituals.  These Jews wanted to keep the rituals of the annual fasts, but God wanted something more than mere going through the motions.  He wanted their relationships to take precedent over their rituals.

Execute justice, show mercy and compassion, don't oppress the helpless, don't plan evil against others, speak truth to each other.  You see, our relationships with each other must be right if we want our worship to be right.  Jesus told us to get our relationship with our brothers right before we bring our sacrifices to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24).  If you have something against another member, go to them and work hard on getting it straightened out.  This will please God more than your worshiping together where there is still rancor and bitterness in your hearts.  Secondly, "it is easier to have a religion of habit than to have a religion of the heart" (Wiersbe).  Now remember, these fasts were not commanded; they were traditions.  Now they started out as good traditions, but they ended up becoming empty traditionalism.  Traditionalism is just going through the motions of rituals without honoring God from the heart.  Remember how God had said that the Jews' fasts had been done for themselves, and not for Him?  Can our worship services also deteriorate into rituals done with a dead faith?  Do some of our fasts need to be turned into feasts?

The last instruction is found in 8:19: "Therefore love truth and peace."

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).  "Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).  "Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thessalonians 5:13).

"Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (James 3:18). 
Are you getting the idea that living peaceably with others is an important concept in the New Testament?  Therefore, love truth and peace!

The Jews were thinking that band-aids would cure their cancer, but God shows that radical surgery was necessary.

After a terrible storm on a beach-front, a man slipped out of bed early to survey the damages.  As he strolled, he saw that beach was covered with starfish that had been thrown ashore and then left helplessly stranded.  Once the sun began burning through the clouds, the starfish would dry up and die.

Then the man saw an interesting sight.  A young boy, who had also seen the plight of the starfish, began picking them up, one at a time, and flinging them into the ocean.  "Why are you doing that"?  the man asked the boy when close enough to be heard.  "Can't you see that one person will never make a difference—you'll never be able to get all these starfish back into the water.  There are just too many."  "Yes, that is true," the boy sighed, as he bent over to pick up another starfish and fling it into the water.  As he watched the starfish hit the water, he looked at the man, smiled, and then said: "But it sure made a difference to that one!" (Waitley in Swindoll).  One person CAN make a difference.  YOU can execute justice, show mercy and compassion, serve the helpless, plan good things, obey God's Word, live hopefully by trusting in Jesus, speak truth, shun falsehood, and pursue peace.  Do you need some radical spiritual surgery?  Have you let rituals become more important than relationships?  Has traditionalism killed your true devotion to God?  Have you forgotten the importance of peaceful relationships?  God compassionately waits for you.  He'll take your pain, bitterness, and frustration if you'll turn them over to Him.  Let Him help you turn your fasts into feasts!