THE LAST TWO CHAPTERS OF the first part of Zechariah are triggered by a question. The question is posed by a delegation from the exiles about liturgical observance. The Jews in Babylon wanted to remain in liturgical sync with the Jerusalemites. Their delegation is pretty early in the life of the returned community—late 518 B.C., just over twenty years since the initial restoration and only a year since the commitment to rebuild the temple, under the preaching of Haggai, had taken hold. The formal answer to their question is not given until 8:18-19. Yet the focus on fasting as a ritual to be observed calls forth sermonic material and various oracular sayings from the Lord that press beyond merely formal observance and call the people, yet again, to fundamental issues. Zechariah 7 is the first of these two chapters, and verses 5-14 provide the first barrage of the prophetic response. We may usefully organize this material by asking three questions:
(1) Is our religion for us or for God? The prophet Zechariah faithfully conveys God’s question to the delegates of the exiles: when across seventy years (i.e., from 587) they faithfully fasted on certain days, thinking those were the “proper” days, did they do so primarily as an act of devotion to God, or out of some self-centered motivation of wanting to feel good about themselves (Zech. 7:5-7)? Fasting may be no more than self-pity, or faithfulness to a cultural mandate, or passive acceptance of tradition. How much of the religious practice was offered to God?
(2) Does our religion elevate ritual above morality? That is the burden of Zechariah’s stinging review of earlier Jewish history (Zech. 7:8-12). Implicitly, Zechariah is asking if their concern for liturgical uniformity is matched by a passionate commitment to “show mercy and compassion to one another,” and to abominate the oppression of the weak and helpless in society (Zech. 7:9-10). Indeed, a genuinely moral mind extends to inner reflection: “In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zech. 7:10). Implicitly, Zechariah asks us precisely the same questions.
(3) Does our religion prompt us passionately to follow God’s words, or to pursue our own religious agendas? “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen” (Zech. 7:13), the Lord Almighty announces. Passionate intensity about the details of religion, including liturgical reformation, is worse than useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. In true religion, nothing, nothing at all, is more important than whole-hearted and unqualified obedience to the words of God.