“So tell the people, ‘This is what the Lord of Armies says: Return to me — this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies — and I will return to you, says the Lord of Armies.’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever had someone do something to hurt or offend you, apologize, but then do it again? How did you feel the second time? Perhaps foolish if you left yourself in a position to be hurt again, but certainly angrier than you were the first time. If they apologized for subsequent offenses, how did you feel about their apology? How genuine did their repentance feel? Not very. Why? Because repentance needs to be a lifestyle, not merely a point in time.
Zechariah is our second-to-last stop in our journey through the Minor Prophets. His is both the longest of the set and the hardest to understand. The imagery he uses fits more in the mold of Ezekiel than any of the others. He is a contemporary of Haggai and delivered his first message to the people just two months after the last message Haggai gave. Both of them are mentioned in Ezra as instrumental in getting the people to finish rebuilding the temple and turn their lives around to be living within the bounds of the Law once again.
What Zechariah writes at the outset here is what really sets the tone for everything that is to follow. He calls the people to repent, and this is actually what I want to talk about with you for a second this morning. The people are called to repent, but not necessarily from any sins they have committed contemporaneously. Instead, they are called to repent of sins of the past. More specifically, they are called to repent of the sins that resulted in their people being sent into exile in the first place.
In the words that immediately follow this verse, Zechariah describes how their ancestors would never really repent when challenged on their sinfulness by God. They disregarded the prophets and kept going down their own path no matter what God did to try and stop them. As a result, they finally were faced with exile. God’s message now to the people of Israel on the other side of the exile is essentially this: Don’t make the same mistake they did.
And as I read this, something grabbed my heart and mind and wouldn’t let go. These people were being called to repent—and as you can see in v. 6 when you click through, did repent—for sins they did not personally commit. So, was God fixing them with someone else’s guilt? No, that would be unjust and God is just. Well, what else could this be? Here’s what occurred to me.
There was no one, single sin that resulted in Judah’s exile to Babylon. Instead, it was a national guilt. They were all guilty and the ones who weren’t were the unfortunate victims of the ones who were. But really, they were all guilty. They had repented during their time in exile. The prophets had called them to it and they had finally responded. They still had to face the consequences of their sin, but they had at least committed themselves to going in God’s direction again.
Now, on the other side of the exile, through the prophet Zechariah, God is calling the people to not fall back into the sins of their past or their ancestors (depending on how old they were). Given the timing of this prophecy in relation to Haggai’s work, we can say this: They were committed to rebuilding the temple, now they needed to be committed to a temple kind of lifestyle.
Let me put this another way that reveals the connection point here for us: Repentance happens at a single point in time, but it can never be only a point in time. Instead, repentance must always be a lifestyle we choose, never merely a decision we make. Let me explain.
When you do something wrong and repent of it, what does that mean? It means you recognize it was not right and that you are committed to going in a different lifestyle direction than the one you were going when you did it. You were walking one way and you have done a complete 180 to walk in the other direction.
But here’s the thing: If you don’t start actually walking in this new direction, then you haven’t really meaningfully repented. You haven’t left behind the place you were in yet. Thus, repentance can’t be a single point of turning. The point has to be followed up by a new lifestyle that reflects the new direction. Otherwise, there’s not a good reason to believe you have really turned anywhere new.
The people of Israel had been walking in a sinful direction for a long time and finally paid the price for it. If the people now did not commit to walking in the new direction they were facing together, they were going to fall back into the sins of their past. They needed to live a lifestyle of repentance if they wanted to enjoy the blessings God wanted to give them.
In our own lives, if we have been dealing with some kind of sin in our past, it is not enough that we simply repent once and move on. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We have to live a lifestyle of repentance, one that reflects the new direction we claim to be facing, or there’s no reason to believe we have truly repented. In other words, it’s not enough to claim to be done with sin, we must actively walk away from it. Walk away from it and in the direction of the life that is truly life. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.