Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
III. THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION CONCERNING THE FAST
CHAPTERS 7 AND 8
1. THE QUESTION PROPOSED: THE PROPHET’S REBUKE
A. The Question (Zech 7:1–4). B. Present Rebuke (Zech 7:5–7). C. Appeal to the Past (Zech 7:8–14)
1And it came to pass in the fourth year of Darius the king that the word of 2Jehovah came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, in Kislev, when 3Bethel1 sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and his men, to entreat Jehovah,2 to speak to the priests who were at the house of Jehovah of Hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Shall I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have now3 done 4, 5so many years? And the word of Jehovah of Hosts came to me, saying, Speak to all the people of the land and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth (month) and in the seventh, and that for seventy years, did ye fast at all to me, to me? 6And when ye eat4 and when ye drink, is it not5 ye who eat 7and ye who drink?6 [Know ye] not the words which Jehovah proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and at peace, and her cities round about her, and the South, and the Lowland were inhabited?
8 And the word of Jehovah came to Zechariah, saying,
9 Thus spake7 Jehovah of Hosts, saying,
Judge the judgment of truth,8
And show kindness and pity9 one to another.
10 And widow and orphan,
And stranger and poor man,10 do not oppress;
And evil against a brother
Conceive ye not in your heart.
11 But they refused to attend,
And offered a rebellious shoulder,
And made their ears too heavy to hear.11
12 And their heart they made an adamant,
That they might not hear the law
And the words which Jehovah of Hosts sent by his Spirit,
By means of the former prophets;
And there was great wrath from Jehovah of Hosts.
13 And it came to pass,
That as he cried and they did not hear,
“So they call and I hear not,12
Saith Jehovah of Hosts;
14 And I whirl13 them over all the nations whom they knew not:”
And the land was made desolate behind them,
So that no one goes out or comes in.
And [so] they made the pleasant land a desert.14
EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL
This prophecy is separated from what precedes by an interval of nearly two years, during all which time the work upon the Temple had been steadily prosecuted. As the building rose before the eyes of the people and gave promise of a speedy restoration of the ancient worship in its integrity, they became doubtful about the propriety of continuing to observe the solemn fasts by which they commemorated calamitous epochs in their former history, especially the anniversary of the burning of the city and temple by Nebuchadnezzar on the tenth day of the fifth month. Accordingly a message of inquiry was sent to the priests and the prophets, to which the Lord vouchsafed a direct and abundant answer by the hand of Zechariah. The first part of this answer is contained in the chapter before us. After reciting the occasion of the oracle (Zech 7:1–3) the prophet rebukes them for the formalism of their services (Zech 7:4–7), and then reminds them of the disobedience of their fathers and the sad doom which followed (Zech 7:8–14).
Zech 7:1–3. The Question. Zech 7:1. And it came….Kislev. The original here is peculiar, in that the note of time is torn apart, the year being first mentioned, and then after the insertion of a clause on another topic, the day and month are stated. Moreover, the latter notation, in the fourth.…Kislev, must belong both to the clause which precedes it and to the one which follows it in Zech 7:2,—of which Köhler justly says, that although not impossible, it is certainly harsh. The sense, however, is plain. Kislev corresponds to part of November and part of December. The origin and meaning of the name are quite uncertain.
Zech 7:2. When Bethel sent, etc. The LXX., Vulgate, Cocceius, et al., make Bethel the object or accusative of place, but in that case it would have been preceded by אֶל, or at least אֶת, or made to follow the subject; and besides there seems to be no reason why after the Captivity the Lord should have been sought at Bethel, since neither the altar nor the prophet was there at that time. It must then be the subject, as most expositors hold, but not in the sense of Hengstenberg, as=the congregation of the Lord, the whole people, since there is no usage to sustain this view, but simply=the people of Bethel, many of whom, we know, had returned with Zerubbabel (Ez. 2:2–8, Neh. 7:32), and soon rebuilt their city (Neh 11:31). Some make the two following names to be in apposition with Bethel (Ewald, Hitzig), but this is harsh as well as needless. The Bethelites sent two of their number, one of whom has an Assyrian name (Sharezer), and was probably born in exile. Their object was to stroke the face, i. e., to conciliate by caresses, or to entreat, Jehovah. It is farther stated in the next verse.
Zech 7:3. To speak to the priests, etc. The priests as well as the prophets were regarded as organs of divine communications. See Hag. 2:11, Mal. 2:7. הִבָּוֵד is not adequately translated by abstaining, i. e., from food, for it means a separation from all the ordinary occupations of life. It is not, therefore, (as Fürst and Keil say)=צוּם. The question is put in the name of the population of Bethel, but they represented what was a general feeling, and hence the Lord’s answer is addressed to the people at large.
Zech 7:4–7 contain a reproof of their manner of observing a fast.
Zech 7:5. Speak to all, etc. The added specification, to the priests, indicates that they particularly needed the information thus given, the substance of which is that the fasting was a matter of no consequence to the Lord. He had not commanded it, nor was it observed out of regard to Him. When the people fasted, and when they ate and drank, it was in either case simply with a view to their own interest. It was therefore a matter of supreme indifference to Him, whether they kept this formal observance or not The text refers not only to the fast in the fifth month, but also to one in the seventh. This was observed on the anniversary of the murder of Gedaliah and his friends (Jer. 41:1 ff.). The emphatic repetition, to me, to me, in the end of the verse, is the key to its meaning.
Zech 7:6. And when ye eat, etc. That is, your feasting as well as your fasting, is conducted without regard to me, simply for your own gratification.
Zech 7:7. Know ye not, etc. The sentence being manifestly incomplete, some supply זֶה after the first word, and render, “Are not these the words,” etc. (LXX., Vulgate, Rosenmüller, E. V. margin); but this would require a noun with אֶת to be taken as a nominative, and besides, there is no record elsewhere of any such utterance of God as this view requires. It is better (Mark, Ewald, Pressel, et al.) to supply “know ye,” and explain the words in question by what follows in Zech 7:9, 10 ישֶׁבֶת. Some critics contend for an intransitive rendering as alone proper for this word (cf. 1:2), but here the sense can scarcely be expressed in English except by a passive form. Certainly it would be an undue liberty to supply וְשֹׁקטֶת from 1:11, as Kliefoth and Köhler do. The South and the Lowland (Shefela), were well defined geographical divisions of Palestine from the time of the Conquest (cf. in Hebrew, Josh. 10:40, 15:21, 31; Smith, Diet. Bib., 2291, 2296).
Zech 7:8–14. Here the prophet reminds his people that the Lord required something else than formal fastings, and that the disobedience of the fathers was the cause of their ruin.
Zech 7:9. Thus spake Jehovah, etc. The connection requires that the first verb should be rendered strictly in the preterite, and not as the E. V. in the present. Judgment of truth is that which is founded upon the actual facts in the case without regard to personal considerations (Ezek. 18:8). Kindness and pity are related as genus and species, the latter being kindness shown to the unfortunate.
Zech 7:10. And widow and orphan, etc. This verse specifies some of the chief ways of violating the preceding requisition, and shows that it covers the thoughts of the heart as well as the acts of the members. The singular occurrence of אִישׁ אָחִיו, after a noun in the construct, is explained by Gen. 9:5, where it stands appositionally,=the man who is his brother. Henderson violates all grammar by rendering (after the LXX.), “think not in your heart of the injury which one hath done to another.” The Vulgate would have been a better guide, malum vir fratri suo non cogitet in corde suo.
Zech 7:11. But they refused…to hear. The figure offered a rebellious shoulder (Neh. 9:29), is taken from the conduct of an ox or heifer, refusing the yoke. Cf. Hos. 4:16.
Zech 7:12. And they made, etc. Adamant is a better translation for שָׁמְיר than diamond (Pressel, Köhler, etc.), because it suggests only that point for which the term is introduced, namely, its impenetrable hardness. The relative refers to both the preceding nouns, but there is no warrant for giving to the law any but its strict and usual sense. This clause well expresses the two factors in all divine revelation, the guiding Spirit and the inspired instruments. The last clause expresses the result of the disobedience and obduracy of the people.
Zech 7:13. And it came to pass, etc. This verse contains a sudden change in the form of the ad dress. The protasis is in the words of the prophet, but the apodosis, so they call, etc., introduces Jehovah as the speaker, and He continues to be such until the second clause of the concluding verse. The sentiment echoes the last words of the first chapter of Proverbs.
Zech 7:14. And I will whirl them, etc. I prefer the rendering, whom they knew not, of the E. V., following the LXX., to the other, “who knew not them,” adopted by most critics after the Vulgate. In either case the sense is clear, namely, that they would fall into the hands of those who being total strangers were the less likely to show compassion. Goes out or comes in, literally, goes away and returns again, is an idiomatic phrase, first found in Ex. 32:27, for passing to and fro. Its negative presents a sad picture of entire desolation. The pleasant land is a familiar designation of Canaan in its agreeable aspect (Ps. 106:24; Jer. 3:19). This final clause states the result, and to give it its full effect, requires the parenthetic insertion of so in the version. Thus it is made plain that all the calamity which is bewailed on the fast days was brought on by the sinful obduracy of those to whom “the former prophets” spoke by the Spirit, but alas, spoke in vain.
THEOLOGICAL AND MORAL
1. The question of the Bethelites indicates very clearly the wretched formalism into which the people had degenerated. The fasts about which they inquired were not of divine appointment, and had no hold upon the conscience. The same authority which originated them could of course discontinue them. The question itself, as well as the motive from which it sprang, betrayed entire ignorance of the nature and design of Scriptural fasting. It is not an ascetic exercise, and has no intrinsic value whatever. Hence even in the complicated and extensive ritual of the Old Testament, there is mention of only one stated fast—the day of atonement (Lev. 16:29),—and that, only by the indirect expression “afflict your souls.” In all other cases, and there are very many of them, the service is set forth as strictly Proverbs re nata, something springing out of the circumstances at the time, and intended to cease as soon as they ceased. It would seem as if the design was to guard against the very error of the Jews mentioned here,—one that long continued to prevail among them and which centuries afterward was distinctly rebuked by our Lord. At one time the objection was made to him by the disciples of John the Baptist, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (Matt. 9:14, 15). That is, while I am present with my disciples, there is no occasion for any such observance, and if I instituted one, its design would surely be mistaken. Hereafter, circumstances will arise when they will instinctively feel that observances of this kind are called for, and then they will appoint them, and retain them so long as may be necessary. Our Lord does not deny the lawfulness or the expediency of fasting; but He does deny its intrinsic excellence or usefulness. It is an expression of sorrow and humiliation proper to be used on the occasions which call for such feelings; then it is fitted to help the discipline of the soul and to lead to benefits quite beyond itself. Indeed, on such occasions it is a suggestion of nature itself,—nothing being more common than for extreme grief or other mental excitement to take away the appetite for food. But whenever the exercise is made to recur statedly at regular intervals without regard to circumstances, its inevitable tendency is to degenerate into a barren form and a mischievous self-deception.
2. This error is a serious one. Overstrained devotion to ceremonial observances is sure to react disastrously upon morals. Men lose the sense of proportion, and lay more stress upon mint, anise, and cummin than upon judgment and mercy; and they compensate for rigidity in forms by great looseness in substance. Hence in this chapter, Zechariah, before answering the question proposed, exposes the hollowness of mere outward fastings (Zech 7:5,6), and then reminds them of the causes of their fathers’ ruin (Zech 7:11, 12). It was not due to any inattention to ritual, but to the disregard of the plainest duties of justice and humanity. They had not only the law written on the heart, and the law engraved on the two tables of stone, but the express and reiterated injunctions of the Prophets against all injustice and oppression; and yet they utterly refused to hear. Their children now were in danger of falling into just the same error. It was true then, as it is now, that no religion is worth anything which does not regulate the life and secure the discharge of social and relative duties. Morality is certainly not piety, but the piety which does not include morality is a mere delusion. It mocks God and insults man.
3. God is represented in Scripture as the guardian of the weak. Widows and orphans, the strangers and the poor, they who are especially exposed to ill treatment, are placed under his powerful protection. To them He makes the most precious promises, while upon their oppressors He denounces the heaviest woes. This feature characterizes the Mosaic legislation, so often thoughtlessly denounced as harsh; it is renewed in the older Prophets before the Captivity, and now reappears again in the closing accents of Old Testament inspiration (cf. also Mal. 3:5). In respect to these classes, the later dispensation is no advance upon the older, except in the higher sanction contained in the words and works of God manifest in the flesh. One of the surest tests of an intelligent Christianity as well as of a high civilization, is found in the provision made and maintained for those who so often are the victims either of cruel neglect, or, alas, willful oppression! Men need to be continually reminded that such provision is a dictate not merely of reason and humanity, but of Him who has proclaimed Himself the judge of the widow and the helper of the fatherless, who preserveth the stranger, and who hath chosen the poor of this world to be the heirs of his kingdom (Ps. 10:14; 68:5; 146:9; Jas. 2:5).
4. The most terrible penalties are penalties in kind. Such as the drunkard pays when at last he feels himself the slave of a vicious habit which he knows is ruining body and soul, and yet he is unable to throw off; or the licentious man when desire survives the power of gratification, and he is tortured by appetites for which exhausted nature has no provision. Similar is it in matters of religion. God calls and men refuse to hear. From the days of Enoch down this has been a common experience. Sometimes a judgment falls or wrath is executed speedily. But ordinarily the retribution comes in the line of the sin. Men awake at last to their true situation, and become alarmed. Then the same process begins as before, with the parties reversed. Men call, but they are not heard. They seek, but do not find. They knock, but no door is opened. There is a painful reminder of the words of the wise man: “They shall eat of the fruit of their own way and be filled with their own devices” (Prov. 1:31).
“Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet,
On, let us in, though late, to kiss his feet!"
“No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now.”
HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL
WORDSWORTH: Zechariah’s typical and prophetical visions are succeeded by practical instructions. All theological mysteries are consummated in holiness and love. The Jews did well to fast, but not to boast of their fasting and self-mortification. Here is a symptom of that Pharisaical reliance upon outward works of religion, which reached its height in our Lord’s age (Matt. 6:16), and became almost as detrimental to vital piety as idolatry had been in the age before the Captivity. Your fasting was not produced by a deep sense of shame and remorse for sin, as hateful to me and as the cause of your punishment from me. It was not a fast of sorrow for my offended majesty, but for your own punishment. It was not a God-ward sorrow, but a world-ward sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10).
TILLOTSON: A truly religious fast consists in (1.) The afflicting of our bodies by a strict abstinence that so they may be fit instruments to promote the grief of our minds. (2.) In the humble confession of our sins to God. (3.) In an earnest deprecation of God’s displeasure. (4.) In intercession for such spiritual and temporal blessings upon ourselves and others as are needful. (5.) In alms and charity to the poor. (6.) In the actual reformation of our lives.
MOORE: All stated fasts tend to degenerate into superstition, unless there is some strong counteracting agency. The original reference to God is lost in the mere outward act. This is the case with Popish observances of the present day. Selfishness is the bane of all true piety, as godliness is its essence. Warnings of punishment when no signs of it are seen, are often disregarded. They who cherish hard hearts must expect hard treatment. The harder the stone, the harder will be the blow of the hammer of beak it. They who will not bear the burden of obedience, must bear the burden of punishment.
HENGSTENBERG: The Jews’ estimate of the value of fasting. A custom which had no meaning, except as the outward manifestation of a penitent state of heart, was regarded as having worth in itself, as an opus operatum. It was supposed that merit was thereby acquired; and surprise and discontent were expressed that God had not yet acknowledged and rewarded the service of so many years.
Zech 7:2.—בֵית־אל is a proper name here, as it is in Judges 20:18, 26, 31.
Zech 7:2—לְהַּלוֹת אֶת־פְּנֵי. Henderson renders this (here and in 8:21) in rather superfine English,—to conciliate the regard. It is not=pray before (E. V.), but simply, to entreat or beseech. Cf. 2 Chron. 33:12.
Zech 7:3—זֶה here is equivalent to our now. Gen. 31:38. See Text, and Gram, on 1:12.
Zech 7:6.—The tenses in the first clause cannot grammatically be rendered as preterites, as E. V.
Zech 7:6.—The marginal rendering (E. V.) of the question is better than that of the text, as leaving less to be supplied.
Zech 7:6.—The question, “Is it not ye,” etc., implies, “Have I anything at all to do with it? Is it not your own affair entirely?
Zech 7:9.—The first verb must be rendered in the preterit; spake, not speaketh.
Zech 7:9.—Judgment of truth. The margin of E. V. is better than the text.
Zech 7:9.—חֶסֶד, kindness. רַחֲמִים, pity. See for the latter on 1:16.
Zech 7:10.—As the first four nouns are anarthrous in the original, it is more literal as well as more spirited to render them so in the version.
Zech 7:11.—In מִשּׁמוֹעַ, the preposition has its not unusual privative force.
Zech 7:13.—The change of tense in the latter half of this verse is obliterated in the E. V. The writer passes from narration, and cites the ipsissima verba of Jehovah. This is a better explanation than that which makes the future express a past action still continuing (Moore). Köhler and Pressel extend the citation as far as מִשׁב, but it is better with Ewald and Umbreit to make it terminate with יְדָעוּם, since the next verb is clearly a preterite.
Zech 7:14—וְאֵסָעֲרֵם is not an Aramaic form, but results from the guttural attracting to itself the vowel of the preceding vav. (Green Heb. Gram., 60, 3 c. and 92 e.)
Zech 7:14.—To render the last clause impersonally (Maurer), is enfeebling as well as needless.
And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Darius, that the word of the LORD came unto Zechariah in the fourth day of the ninth month, even in Chisleu;