The Biblical Illustrator
When they had sent unto the house of God Sherezer, and Regemmelech, and their men to pray before the Lord
The left ones in captivity
It must be observed that though all had not so much courage as to return to their own country as soon as leave was given them, they were not yet gross despisers of God, and wholly destitute of all religion.
It was indeed no light fault to remain torpid among the Babylonians when a free return was allowed them; for it was an invaluable kindness on the part of God to stretch forth His hand to the wretched exiles, who had wholly despaired of a return. Since then God was prepared to bring them home, such a favour could not have been neglected without great ingratitude. But it was yet the Lord’s will that some sparks of grace should continue in the hearts of some, though their zeal was not so fervid as it ought to have been. All then are not to be condemned as unfaithful, who are slothful and want vigour; but they are to be stimulated. For they who indulge their torpor act very foolishly, but at the same time they ought to be pitied, when there is not in them that desirable alacrity in devoting themselves to God which they ought to have. These men remained in exile, but did not wholly renounce the worship of God; for they sent sacred offerings, by which they professed their faith: and they also inquired what they were to do, and showed deference to the priests and prophets then at Jerusalem. It hence appears, that they were not satisfied with themselves, though they did not immediately amend what was wrong. There are many now, who, in order to exculpate themselves, or rather to wipe away (as they think) all disgrace, despise God’s word, and treat us with derision. (John Calvin.)
Religious beliefs and religious services
I. Religious beliefs that are right. There are three beliefs implied in this commission entrusted to Sherezer.
1. The efficacy of prayer. They were sent to pray before the Lord, or, as in the margin, “to intreat the face of the Lord.” That men can obtain by prayer to the Supreme Being what they could not obtain without it, is one of the fundamental and distinctive faiths of humanity.
2. In the intercession of saints. These men were sent to pray before the Lord, not merely for themselves but for others.
3. The special ability of some men to solve the religious questions of others. This Sherezer and Regemmelech appealed unto the priests which were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, “Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?” They wanted a certain religious question answered, and they appealed to a certain class of religious men who they believed had the power to do so.
II. Religious services that are wrong. The Jews had performed religious services; they had “fasted,” they had “mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years.” This was right enough so far as the form is concerned; but in spirit the service was wrong, hence here is the reproof.
1. Their services were selfish. Mark the reproof. “Did ye at all fast unto Me?” Was it not from selfish motives that ye did all this? Was it not with a view of obtaining My release, and securing My favour?
2. Selfish motives the Almighty had always denounced. (Homilist.)
Did ye at all fast unto Me, even to Me?
Rebuke of mere ceremonies
God had, through successive ages, exhorted the Jews to true repentance, and condemned their dissimulation, that they might not think that true religion was made up of fasting and of similar things. Fastings being of themselves of no moment, a beginning ought to be made with true religion and spiritual worship. When this question about the fast was raised by the captives, much disputing prevailed among the people. The Jews ever reverted to their old ways, being blindly attached to their frigid ceremonies, and thinking in this manner to propitiate God, so the prophet derides their preposterous labour and toil. “See,” he says, “the only question now is, whether there should be fasting, as though this were the principal thing before God; in the meantime, godliness is neglected, and real calling on God; the whole of spiritual worship is also esteemed by you as nothing, and no integrity of life prevails: for ye bite one another, plunder one another, wrong one another, and are guilty of lying; ye heedlessly close your eyes to such vices as these; and at the same time, when fasting is neglected, ye think that the whole of religion falls to the ground. These are your old ways, and such were commonly the thoughts and doings of your fathers; and it appears evident that ye trifle with God, and that ye are full of deceits, and that there is not in you a particle of true religion. For God formerly spoke loudly in your ears, and His words were not obscure when He exhorted you by His prophets; He showed to you what true repentance was, but effected nothing. Is it not then quite evident that ye are now acting deceitfully, when ye so carefully inquire about fasting?” This reproof was needful, in order more sharply to stimulate them; it was wholly necessary to discover their hypocrisy, that they might not be too much pleased with external performances. (John Calvin.)
A question about the propriety of continuing the stated fasts under the altered circumstances of the people brings a delegation to the prophet to solve this doubt. The date of this transaction was two years after the symbolic visions of the preceding portion. But the Jewish people needed something more than information in regard to the continuance of this fast. The whole doctrine of fasting had become overlaid with an incrustation of formalism and superstition that needed to be broken up. Fasting had become not a means but an end, a mere form, as it is in Mohammedan and papal countries at this day, and had attached to it an opus operatum that wholly destroyed its real value. They thought that God must bless them, indeed was bound to bless them, if they rigidly observed these outward rites, whatever was their inward character. Thus formalism acted in the time of the restoration, precisely as it acted in every subsequent period of the Church; and before a mere question of ritual observance could be settled, it was important that their minds should be set right on the deeper questions of their spiritual relations with God. The prophet, instead of answering the question about the fast of the fifth month, proceeds to rebuke them for their selfish and stupid will worship, and their ignorance in regard to the whole subject of fasting, not only as to this, but as to all the stated fasts that they had been observing. (T. V. Moore, D. D.)
The self-centredness of fasting
It is not enough to fast. That may be a trick; there may be a way of doing it which robs it of all its virtue and of all its significance. God takes our ceremonies to pieces and says aloud, What is the meaning of all this--your church going and hymn singing, and apparently decent observance of religious ordinances? Is it in reality unto Me, or it is unto yourselves? Fasting is not postponed feasting. Yet this is what it has been turned into many times. Fasting has become a process by which we have got ready for eating. We have kept at it were on one side all the things we have abstained from, and then, when the fasting day was over, we transferred the whole of them to the table and gorged ourselves with the very things we had fasted from. That is not fasting. When you fast from your bread, you must give your bread away--“Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?” Fasting is not to lock the cupboard where the bread is, and to say, We shall not want you today, but tomorrow about this time we shall be prepared for the feast. No, the loaf must be given away, and there must not be left one crust in the house. When we feast the poor, we truly fast ourselves. God will not have any other fasting. As for church going, what is the meaning of it? Is it to relieve the tedium of a dull night? Is it to hear something that will titillate the senses or momentarily please the fancy? Is it to get rid of something at home? Or does it express the spirit of adoration, the necessity of the soul’s immortality? Is it a coming to God because He is God? Is it worship, or a form of entertainment? The Lord thus searches into our ceremonies and says, What do they mean? So also with our feasting: the criticism of God is not partial: the judgment of heaven attends our banqueting and asks questions whilst the foaming goblet is in our hands. “And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?” (Zechariah 7:6). But, O Thou loving God, Thou art also our Creator, and are we not so made that we cannot get away from ourselves? The Lord answers, Yes, you are so made: but you forget there is a second creation, a miracle called incarnation, and following upon that a sacrament called Pentecost, the Whit-tide of the Spirit’s descent, so that a man shall be himself, yet no longer himself, yea another self; God will give him another heart. If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is not his old self one whit, but a new creature, with new aspirations, new necessities, new desires, with the restlessness which leads to contentment, with the ambition that despises the constellations because they are too small for its religious capacity. You are right when you say, you cannot get away from yourselves, your prayers are selfish unless you take great heed to them; but if you be rooted in Christ, living branches in the living Vine, why then you shall perform this miracle of being yourself and yet not yourself; of the earth, yet of the heaven; standing upon the earth, yet having a celestial citizenship and franchise. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
How to keep a truly religious fast
The inquiry of the text concerns the fast of the fifth month, which was observed as a sad remembrance of the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem. The exiles had three other fasts. Did they really serve any religious end and purpose? Did not the people content themselves with a mere external show and performance, without any inward affliction and humiliation of their souls, in order to a real repentance? Did they not still go on in their sins, nay, and add to them on these occasions, fasting for strife and debate and oppression? Were they not worse rather than better for them? And therefore God had no regard to them. Notwithstanding the outward solemnities of fasting and prayer, there was nothing of a religious fast; “Did ye at all fast unto Me, even unto Me?” The prophet Isaiah calls a true fast, the fast which God hath chosen, and an acceptable day to the Lord.
I. In general, what is it to fast unto God?
1. A truly religious fast consists in the afflicting of our bodies by a strict abstinence.
2. In the humble confession of our sins to God, with shame and confusion of face.
3. In an earnest deprecation of God’s displeasure, and humble supplications to Him that He would avert His judgments, and turn away His anger from us.
4. In intercession with God for such spiritual and temporal blessings upon ourselves and others as are needful and convenient.
5. In alms and charity to the poor, that our humiliation and prayers may find acceptance with God.
II. In particular what is the duty of a day of solemn national repentance and humiliation? Apply the above five essentials of a true fast to the particular circumstances of the day. (J. Tillotson, D. D.)
True and mistaken fasting
The prophet expostulates with the people concerning their monthly fasts, whether they did indeed deserve that name, and were not rather a mere show and pretence of a religious fast. It is necessary to consider the original and occasion of these monthly fasts. When carried into captivity, the Jews appointed four annual fasts. (Zechariah 8:19.) The question is,--Did these fasts truly serve to any religious end and purpose? Were not the people rather worse than better for them? They were sensible of the judgments of God which were broken in upon them, but they did not turn from their sins, but persisted still in their obstinacy and disobedience. These fasts could not therefore be acceptable to God.
I. What is it to keep a truly religious fast?
1. A truly religious fast consists in the afflicting of our bodies by a strict abstinence that so they may be fit and proper instruments to promote and help forward the grief and trouble of our minds.
2. In the humble confession of our sins to God with shame and confusion of face, and with a hearty contrition and sorrow for them.
3. In an earnest deprecation of God’s displeasure, and humble supplications to Him that He would avert His judgments and turn away His anger from us.
4. In intercession with God for such spiritual and temporal blessings upon ourselves and others as are needful and convenient.
5. In alms and charity to the poor, that our humiliation and prayers may find acceptance with God.
II. What is our duty on a day appointed for solemn humiliation and repentance throughout the nation?
1. We should humble ourselves before God everyone for his own personal sins and miscarriages, whereby he hath provoked God, and increased the public guilt, and done his part to bring down the judgments and vengeance of God upon the nation. There cannot be a general reformation without the reformation of particular persons which do constitute and make up the generality.
2. We should heartily lament and bewail the sins of others, especially the great and crying sins of the nation. This hath been the temper and practice of good men in all ages. Illustrate by Jeremiah, Lot, David, Daniel, Ezra, etc. We should lament and bewail the general prevalence of impiety and vice which has diffused itself through all ranks and degrees of men, magistrates, ministers, and people.
3. We should earnestly deprecate God’s displeasure, and make our humble supplications to Him, that He would be graciously pleased to avert those terrible judgments which hang over us, and which we have just cause to fear may fall on us; and that He would be entreated by us at last to be appeased towards us, and to turn from the fierceness of His anger.
4. We should pour out our most earnest supplications for the preservation of their majesties sacred persons.
5. Our fasting and humiliation should be accompanied with our alms and charity to the poor and needy.
6. We should prosecute our repentance and good resolutions to the actual reformation and amendment of our lives. This is the proper fruit and effect of all our humiliation and good resolutions. Without this, all our fasting will signify nothing. (Archbishop Sharp.)
Should ye not hear the words which the Lord hath cried by the former prophets
God’s Word by former prophets
External performances of external duties of religion are nothing in God’s sight, where there is not study of obedience to all His revealed will, nor will howling under misery avail, while wickedness is kept under their tongue.
2. The Lord in all ages is uniform and like Himself in approving and enjoining of duty, and in disliking of sin, yesterday and today, the same forever: for the Lord here requires the same He required of their fathers.
3. The longer the Lord by His Word hath been pressing duty upon His people, they ought to heed it the more, lest judgment prove the sadder; for, He presseth a doctrine that had been long since cried, to be so much the rather heard.
4. The Lord’s chastising a people for sin and disobedience, doth not warrant them to look on their deliverance from chastisement, as a full assurance of their being reconciled, as if their strokes had made up all; but being delivered they are to make conscience of obedience, otherwise the controversy still stands, whatever deliverance they get, and they may expect to smart again. Therefore, after all their captivity, they must hear and obey.
5. It may help us to take heed to what God says in a sad time, when we consider that if it had been hearkened unto, it might have prevented much misery; for so is this doctrine commended, it was cried “when Jerusalem was inhabited, and in prosperity,” etc.; that so the thoughts of their former prosperity, which had ended in sad desolation, might let them see the ill of former neglect, and stir them up to be more serious. (George Hutcheson.)
Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone
The disease and cure of the hard heart
A man does not become profligate or altogether wicked at once.
One vice makes way for another. The people in Zechariah’s time had arrived at such a prodigious height of vice, that it is said, “Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone.” Adamant is the hardest of all stones: it is found by the best chemists to be indissolvable. The similitude is proper to exhibit the real state of the human heart; which cannot be melted, or reduced to the genuine image of Jesus, by human art or power.
I. The disuse of the hard heart.
1. Of the symptoms or nature of it. It discovers itself in a wayward temper, a pride and stoutness of heart against God, particularly the calls of His providence, and the admonitions of His holy Word. This is the genuine character of wicked men. God is not in all their thoughts. They extinguish the remains of natural conscience. In an inflexibility against the word of truth, and the ordinances of religion. The inflexible adamantine heart defeateth the gracious designs of the Gospel. It is inflexible to the motions of God’s Holy Spirit. And this is the crowning sin. He knocks by the motions of His Holy Spirit, yet the hard heart refuseth to give Him admittance.
2. The different kinds of this disease.
3. The causes of this spiritual malady.
II. The cure of this spiritual malady.
1. Serious and frequent mediations on the perfections of the Divine nature, especially His glory and power.
2. Faith in the great doctrines of the Gospel is a sovereign remedy for the most inveterate disorders of the soul.
3. Faith in Gospel ordinances is another sovereign remedy.
4. Faith in the great atonement made by our exalted High Priest is another absolutely necessary ingredient in the cure of the adamantine heart. The dignity and infinite excellence of this sacrifice will appear from its Divine appointment; from the nature of the sacrifice itself; from its noble and infinitely precious fruits; from those vast multitudes who have been saved by this sacrifice.
5. Another ingredient towards the cure of the hard heart is a proper knowledge of the guilt and demerit of transgression. The smallest deviation from the Divine law is entailed with the curse. (J. Johnston.)
The guilt of hardness of heart
There are periods in the life of every person who hears the Gospel in which his attention is called, in an especial manner, to the subject of religion; and one of the most common discoveries made at these times is this--that the heart is insensible,--that there is in it no corresponding emotions to the magnitude, or to the admitted importance of the great truths which have now become the subject of special attention. Insensibility upon the subject of religion is inexcusable. Notice that you are not destitute of sensibility and susceptibility. You are not incapable of feeling. Religion does not indeed consist in emotion. It consists, first, in a right belief, then right feeling, then right purpose, then right action. You are not destitute of those susceptibilities to which the truths of the Gospel make their appeal. Nothing is so adapted to excite these constitutional susceptibilities as the great truths of religion. Consider the subjects of immortality, the being and character of God. God is love. Then why do you not love Him whom you should love supremely? We are capable of reverence, and God is the most venerable being in the universe. There is in Him independence, eternal existence, majesty, power, dominion, sovereignty, the terribleness of wrath, greatness of mercy, all of which qualities are capable of inspiring the soul of man with the profoundest feeling of reverence. “Fearful,” said Moses of God, “fearful in praises.” Consider the great work of redemption. God from His holy throne looking down upon a lost race. God meeting the demands of His own justice, and in order to sustain the principles of His moral government, condescending to be Himself the victim of the law, and a sacrifice to its penal demands. Will you tell me, you who confess to this charge of religious insensibility, will you tell me why you have never sympathised with the Divine compassion? You have looked upon that scene of the Father giving up His only begotten Son to save a lost race, and you never felt that, you never admired, never loved, never thanked, never praised Him for it! It is not that God has made you so, not that religion is not calculated to enlist your feelings on its behalf, there must be some other cause. Your hardness of heart is the result of apostasy. It is the issue, the fatal issue of a process, directly and completely adapted to the end, and incessantly practised up to the present moment. Who is it that is now complaining of moral insensibilities? Is it that person who has cherished the teachings of maternal kindness, and the sentiments inspired from time to time by the solemn admonitions of providence, and the more solemn warnings of life? Oh, no! I apprehend a fair review of your life will take away your surprise at any present hardness of heart. You have the power of commanding your thoughts, of fixing your attention on any subject. You can then command your thoughts, control the current of your thoughts, and the attention of your mind, keep your mental eye fixed upon all that is pure, lovely, noble, vast, glorious, upon God, the human soul, immortality, redemption, the great, the vast interests of the human race. Keep your thoughts up, and your soul will go up; keep your thoughts high, and your character will be elevated; keep your thoughts high, and your hopes will be pure, elevating, high. I am not speaking of this life only, I go beyond that. You will notice, in regard to your own mind, that some subjects approve themselves to you, by the operation of the passions. The passions have their own objects, and when they are at work in the soul, they bring into the imagination those thoughts and visions which are apt to feed themselves. Bodily appetites have their passions, and they control the trains of thought. What I wish to observe is, that the passions, the appetites, the senses, the general conversation of life, the character of the literature of the day, all tend to make you worldly and sinful and not religious. They do not suggest the great truths of religion, nor tend to keep them before the mind. Spiritual subjects must be kept before you by an effort of your will; your thoughts must be raised by meditating upon the Divine will. The hardness of heart which you may be feeling tonight, runs back through the history of your life, and could be traced to a period quite remote from the present. The text is true, “You have made your heart as an adamant stone.” What a comparison this is to make! Like an adamant stone all moral culture is lost upon it. (E. N. Kirk.)
I was on a visit lately at a country village. The first morning I was there, I was awakened very early by the sound of a horn blowing, which continued for about a quarter of an hour. It disturbed me every morning, at the same hour, and on speaking of it to my friends, they assured me that I would soon get accustomed to it, and it would then cease to disturb me. And so it proved. I could soon sleep on undisturbed, though the horn blew as usual. In a spiritual sense I think this is the most dangerous state into which a man can fall. When they hear the Gospel preached to them at first, they seem to waken out of a sleep, and get disturbed and uncomfortable; but if they do not take advantage of what they hear, they get accustomed to it, and by and by can listen to any Gospel sermon without being moved by it. Such a man’s state is worse than at the first, for God’s Spirit has ceased to strive with him. (Christian Herald.)
I would not hear, saith the Lord of hosts
God refusing to hear prayer
The negligence of men.
1. They do not hear the dispensations of God in His providence.
2. They do not hear the invitations of God by His servants.
3. They do not hear the commands of God in His Word.
II. The judgment of God.
1. He will not hear the cry of the lost, as expressive of regret.
2. He will not hear the cry of the lost, as expressive of disappointment.
3. He will not hear the cry of the lost, as expressive of fear.
4. He will not hear the cry of the lost, as expressive of despair. (G. Brooks.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Zechariah 7". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25