Read Zechariah 7.
How important is fasting? Is it crucial for refocusing our time and energy from material things to seeking God? Or does God want us focused on goals like seeking justice for those who are missing out? This almost feels like two streams of Christianity: one focused on a personal relationship with God; the other focused on justice for the world.
These were not separate topics for the OT prophets. People asked Zechariah, Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years? (7:3) His response is explosive.
Some context for the question before we hear Zechariah’s answer. It’s 7 December 518 BC (7:1). People are returning from exile, building a temple to replace the one Babylon destroyed. God has already consecrated the high priest (4:1-10). For now, he’s to wear the crown as well, since they’re under Persian rule (6:9-15). They’re in that in-between space: partially restored, but not fully so. They want to know whether to celebrate the restoration as it unfolds, or to keep fasting and mourning until they’re restored as a kingdom of God.
The Torah doesn’t help. It speaks only of feasting, never fasting. But there’s been nowhere to hold the annual festivals for almost 70 years. That’s why they began regular fasting: the fifth month was when the temple was destroyed (2 Kings 25:8-9).
They’ve been fasting in the seventh month as well (7:5). Initially they were permitted to have their own governor, but that didn’t last: he was assassinated in the seventh month (2 Kings 25:25-26). That was the last remnant of local rule.
They’d lost God’s presence (the temple) and God’s governance (the kingdom). Zechariah asks them if this is what they were mourning with their regular fasts, or if they were just missing their own business opportunities and connections:
Zechariah 7:4–7 (NIV)
4 Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: 5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? 7 Are these not the words the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?’ ”
Earlier prophets said God sent his people into exile because they were unfaithful to the covenant, not living as their Sovereign directed. So, fasting isn’t the issue. What God wants to know is whether they’re ready to live as his people under his kingship, or if they’re only after the benefits for themselves.
We make the same mistake if we market the gospel as personal benefits, some version of “Come to Jesus and your life will be so much better.” That’s not faith. The gospel calls for allegiance to God’s Anointed ruler, life under his kingship, a community where love births justice.
Here’s what God expects:
8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ ”
We keep hearing this message from the OT prophets, and from “kingdom warriors” today. But to whom is Zechariah speaking?
Not the Persian rulers. Zechariah did not say their godless rulers were the problem. The problem was the people of God not being the people of God. Protesting the godlessness and injustice of our rulers can yield only limited and temporary results. Expecting justice from them is misplaced faith.
The call to justice must be directed to the community that acknowledges God as king:
- Listen to the prophets. They called Israel to justice, for the benefit of the nations.
- Listen to Jesus. There were reasons to protest the injustice of Herod and Pilate, but he didn’t: he called God’s nation to justice under his leadership.
- Listen to the NT letters. Which one is a protest to Caesar, demanding justice? They’re all addressed to the communities of King Jesus, calling us to justice.
Expecting the rulers of this world to behave as the kingdom of God is a misguided gospel, just as not calling the people of God to live justly as his kingdom is a misguided gospel. Self-focused individualism (“You’ll do better with Jesus”) is not the gospel.
The good news is that God’s anointed is our leader. The gospel calls for allegiance to Christ as Lord, so that all who have been oppressed (widow, orphan, foreigner, …) experience life as the kingdom of God.
Fasting or justice?
“Should we fast?” they asked Zechariah. “Who cares?” was his answer.
God shows little interest in our spiritual disciplines:
- Abstaining from taking advantage of vulnerable people and plotting evil against each other — that’s more important than abstaining from food (7:10).
- God looks for justice, loyal love, and empathetic understanding — a community implementing his reign (7:9).
That good-news is credible, the community that transforms the world. Anything less leaves the pleasant land desolate (7:14).