“Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer, Regem-melech, and their men to plead for the Lord’s favor by asking the priests who were at the house of the Lord of Armies as well as the prophets, ‘Should we mourn and fast in the fifth month as we have done these many years?’ Then the word of the Lord of Armies came to me: ‘Ask all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and in the seventh months for these seventy years, did you really fast for me?’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done something for someone a long time only to later discover they either had never noticed or didn’t want you doing it the whole time? That would be a frustrating experience to say the least. But, what if some point early on in your efforts, the other person had communicated her position to you in some way that you ignored? You ignored it and forgot about it and kept right on doing whatever it was. That changes things, doesn’t it? Now who were you really doing it for? It wasn’t her anymore. You were really doing it for yourself. Well, what if the object of this unwanted affection were to be God?
A couple of years after Zechariah had his visions to encourage the people in their efforts to rebuild the temple, some folks came down from Bethel to ask a question about their relationship with the Lord. They had been fasting every fifth month on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple for 70 years. Now that the temple was being rebuilt, did they need to keep doing this?
Fasting is something that the people of Israel did regularly for centuries. Even into Jesus’ day the most religiously observant Jews were fasting regularly. By then they were doing it as often as twice a week to show their devotion to the Lord (and to show off their devotion to the people). I’m walking my church through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector this afternoon. One of the Pharisee’s prayerful boasts was that he fasted twice a week.
While this fasting may have started and occasionally hit the mark of a genuine spiritual discipline, for most people it became little more than a religious exercise. It was a spiritual box to check that gave them the (false) confidence that they had done what God required and could therefore be confident of their relationship with Him.
The thing is, God’s not really big on religious exercises. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that He hates them. A lot. More than once in the prophets we find Him telling the people that He’d rather them not bother worshiping at all if all they are going to do is perform religious exercises as if those gained His approval. They didn’t. At all. In fact, it was kind of a pet peeve of His. Worship performed as a show rather than real devotion overflowing from a committed, faithful heart bothers Him a lot.
Why do you think that is? Can I suggest a reason? It’s because of His love for us. Worship performed as a show does not connect us with Him. Actually, most of the time it serves as a substitute for connecting with Him. We check a box, but don’t give Him the faithfulness He deserves in light of who He is, and the distance between us because of sin remains in place. Worship like this can wind up serving as something that actively keeps us away from a real relationship with Him. Let that one sit on you: Worship without devotion doesn’t connect us with God, it pushes us away from Him.
So why are we doing it? That’s what God asks the people here. When you performed all those fasts for all those years, did you really do them for me? He hadn’t asked them to do it. Nothing in the Law required it. They did it as an act of solidarity and remembrance. And then they kept doing it because it was what they did.
Once He gets going on this, though, He doesn’t stop. “Why do you do any of the things you do?” He asks. Why do you eat and drink? The implication is that they do all of these things only for themselves. They are really thinking about themselves, not about Him. If they want a fast that is going to accomplish anything meaningful in terms of their relationship with Him, they’re going to need to actually think about Him while they’re doing it.
And what does that look like? He told their ancestors. “The Lord of Armies says this: ‘Make fair decisions. Show faithful love and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the resident alien or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.’” In other words, they were to reflect His character in their attitudes and actions. If their fasts accomplished that, they were going to be worthwhile. But they didn’t. So they weren’t. Instead, they stuck to the same offensive-to-God fasts until He finally had enough (along with all their other sinfulness) and sent them packing, scattered all around the region. That was the exile from which they were still picking up the pieces.
So then, what does all of this mean for us? The same thing it meant for them. No, we’re not going to be sent into exile if we don’t get fasting right. It means that if we want to get close to God in Christ, a bunch of religious exercises aren’t going to do the trick. Worship that is true does three things. It recognizes, celebrates, and participates in the character of God. If our worship doesn’t accomplish those, it isn’t worth our time. It isn’t worth our time and it’s offensive to God because we’re playing at showing Him honor without actually showing Him that honor.
What you and I need to do, then, is to ask ourselves this question every time we set out to worship: Why am I doing this? Is it coming from the overflow of my faithful devotion to and love for the Lord, or am I simply going through the motions? If we answer the latter, that doesn’t necessarily mean we quit. It means we examine our hearts to see what is the issue sitting between us and God. Is it a sin issue we don’t want to let go of? Are we angry with Him and we need to get that resolved? What else? We need to resolve whatever it is—with His help, of course—and remember who He is.
Stop giving God junk He doesn’t need and doesn’t want. Doing it for your own sake is a waste of your time and energy. Set your heart and mind on recognizing, celebrating, and participating in the character of God. It’s what you were made for.