I’m studying the Old Testament book Zechariah. This morning in chapter 7, I encountered an interaction that contains a strong challenge regarding motives and worship. The prophet reports that the people sent men to “entreat the favor of the Lord,”
3 saying to the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to (Zechariah): 5 “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?
Through the people’s 70 year exile in
they had fasted regularly in the 5th month. God answers using a style Jesus would use so often, answering their question with a question of his own, “was it for me that you fasted.” Babylon
Such a simple string of seven words, all of them one syllable except one, but they cut sharply and convict powerfully.
This text has recalibrated me this morning. I spend quite a bit of time doing “spiritual” things: praying, reading scripture, studying scripture, attending worship, preaching, leading worship, and reading books to name a few. Over those activities this morning, I’ve sensed God saying to me. “Is it really for me that you are pursuing prayer? Is it really for me that you are attending worship? Is it really for me that you are reading the bible, that you are studying my word? I understand that this means, are you doing these things so that you may know me, are you genuinely seeking me, are you longing for me, is that why you are doing these things, or is it for some other reason?
The text goes on to imply that the people had not been fasting to seek God, rather it was an exercise in self-pity. These words from one of my commentaries on this text are tough:
God shifted the focus by questioning the sincerity of the people’s fasting and responding with a series of rhetorical questions. What had begun as a time of genuine contrition for sin and the suffering that ensues had deteriorated into a mere ritual performed legalistically. As commanded in numerous other passages, God enjoined the people to focus again on the heart-felt repentance that should mark any such commemoration. Barker adds, “They had turned it [the fast] into a time of self-pity for their physical condition, devoid of genuine repentance and moral implications.”
Obviously, God is not against these activities, nor was he against fasting in speaking to the returned exiles. But this short incident shows, as do many other passages, that real religion, real Christianity first seeks God, to know him and to honor him. Second, such encounters must result in justice and mercy shown toward others, but that’s a subject for a different day.