The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Again the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying,Fasting and Feasting
Zechariah 7, Zechariah 8
It is not enough to fast That may be a trick; there may be a way of doing it which robs it of all its virtue and of all its significance. God takes our ceremonies to pieces, and says aloud, What is the meaning of all this—your church-going and hymn-singing, and apparently decent observance of religious ordinances? Is it in reality unto me, or is it unto yourselves? Fasting is not postponed feasting. Yet this is what it has been turned into many times. Fasting has become a process by which we have got ready for eating. We have kept, as it were, on one side all the things we have abstained from, and then, when the fasting day was over, we transferred the whole of them to the table, and gorged ourselves with the very things we had fasted from. That is not fasting. When you fast from your bread, you must give your bread away—"Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?" Fasting is not to lock the cupboard where the bread is, and to say, We shall not want you to-day, but tomorrow about this time we shall be prepared for the feast. No, the loaf must be given away, and there must not be left one crust in the house. When we feast the poor, we truly fast ourselves. God will not have any other fasting. As for church-going, what is the meaning of it? Is it to relieve the tedium of a dull night? Is it to hear something that will titillate the senses or momentarily please the fancy? Is it to avoid something at home? Or does it express the spirit of adoration, the necessity of the soul's immortality? Is it a coming to God because he is God? Is it worship, or a form of entertainment? The Lord thus searches into our ceremonies and says, What do they mean? So also with our feasting: the criticism of God is not partial: the judgment of heaven attends our banqueting, and asks questions whilst the foaming goblet is in our hands.
"And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?" (Zechariah 7:6).
But, O thou loving God, thou art also our Creator, and are we not so made that we cannot get away from ourselves? The Lord answers, Yes, you are so made; but you forget there is a second creation, a miracle called incarnation, and following upon that a sacrament called Pentecost, the Whittide of the Spirit's descent, so that a man shall be himself, yet no longer himself, yea, another self; God will give him another heart. If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is not his old self one whit, but a new creature, with new aspirations, new necessities, new desires, with the restlessness which leads to contentment, with the ambition that despises the constellations because they are too small for its religious capacity. You are right when you say you cannot get away from yourselves; your prayers are selfish unless you take great heed to them; but if you be rooted in Christ, living branches in the living Vine, why then you shall perform this miracle of being yourself and yet not yourself; of the earth, yet of the heaven; standing upon the earth, yet having a celestial citizenship and franchise.
Is the Lord contented either with fasting or feasting? No. Fasting and feasting are parts of a process. They are nothing in themselves. Do not think you are going to heaven because you are total abstainers; do not imagine you are going to heaven because you are winebibbers and gluttons; do not suppose that any ordinance has in itself as such any virtue; it is but typical, symbolical, indicative, a finger pointing to the Lamb, the Life, the Divine. If you look at the index-finger, and do not follow the direction which it indicates, the looking at the finger will do nothing for you. What will God have? He never changes; his exactions or requirements are always the same, and are always moral. He does not want clever men, brilliant men, startling men; he wants something that every man, woman, and child can produce: he is the God of humanity, and not the God of human eccentricity. Hence we have universal terms, lines that touch the horizon; they are moral appeals and judgments. Thus:—
"Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassions every man to his brother: and oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart" (Zechariah 7:9-10).
That does not require any learned exposition. These are the claims that establish the inspiration of the Bible and the authority of Christ's kingdom in the world. The Bible will have nobody oppressed. Wherever the Bible sees any one who is helpless, it sends the whole Church down to him; though the Church be engaged in ringing bells and observing sacraments, and doing all manner of official or mechanical work, the Bible voice says, Halt! There is a man outside who needs you: men first, and your ceremonies afterwards. Why do not men yield to the spirit of the Bible? When they discuss the Bible, why do they not attack its central citadel? Why do they go about striking little lights, and trying to set fire to its outposts? Here is a book that wants justice, mercy, honesty, purity, peace, brotherhood. That Bible you cannot overturn. Clever men can do wonderful things with the chronology of the Bible and the external relations of biblical history; but the worst man that ever lived, though he be clever with the cleverness of a thousand unbelievers, can say nothing against this, "What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" That is the Bible; that is the inspired Bible; that is eternal franchise of redeemed man. Oh, if the critics, the word-splitters, and the word-mongers would confine themselves to what the Bible wants really and vitally to be at, namely, the redemption, the regeneration, the sanctification and glorification of the image of God in man, infidelity would be suffocated; infidelity could not live in that air, it would die and be forgotten. Ministers and churches are not set up to find food for infidels; it is not their function to say, Now here is a difficulty, and there is an impossibility, and yonder is something we cannot explain. Let these things alone; you have a book that says, "Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassions every man to his brother." Will you tear that book to pieces, will you turn your back upon that document? Love it, repeat it, teach it to your children, bind it on your frontlets, write it on the doorposts of your house, and thus help the incoming of the reign of the Son of man.
The Bible establishes a great brotherhood. It does not found itself on municipal lines, which have such an amazing fascination for certain state mechanicians. Only get something founded upon municipal lines, and the world will enter upon halcyon days. Nothing of the kind. Get society established on household lines, on family lines, on home lines, and society will be secured in all that is of value, in permanence, dignity, and utility. God will have a house, it is called the Father's house; he will have a family, it is called the whole family in heaven, and on earth. Where is the dividing line? ay, where? We may have made one, we are fond of delimitations of frontiers and the marking of boundaries, but see to it that we do not begin to delimit the frontier between time and eternity. What if time and eternity belong to one another, and swing together in heavenly music and harmony? God will have the house, the family, the home, the brotherhood; and he will have this because Jesus is the Son of man. O think of man with this outcome—the Son of man! There is a creed that wants us to worship Humanity, with a capital H, but that humanity is too filmy, impalpable, vague; it is not the humanity that is present, but the humanity that is past, and the humanity that is to come, that is to be worshipped; but the humanity that is past is by so much dead, and the humanity that is to come is not born, so that when we want to concentrate our worship upon this humanity, with an infinite H, the heart says, Beyond is what we want! Name that anonymous figure flitting before the mind's eye in outline—what is that? And we say, That is the Son of man, concrete, personal, individual, Christly. The heart says, Let him enter; it is enough, he fills up the spaces of the soul, as the tide fills all the caves and inner places, and levels with liquid reconciliation all the ruggedness of the crag, and rock; let him come, we belong to him, and he belongs to us. When he comes, will he have any other law than this? None. Sometimes in mood of mind as if in intense and desperate haste he totalises the whole command of God, and says, It is but twofold: thou shalt love the Lord, and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself—the Old Testament rewritten, without supplement, with a new ink, red as the blood of the heart of the Son of God.
This law having been laid down, and insisted upon by moral appeal, what came of it?
"They refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear" (Zechariah 7:11).
They acted like restive horses or restive oxen. "Pulled away the shoulder" because the yoke chafed it. Men do thus, and then blame Providence for the results. Men never say, We have disobeyed God, and therefore these things have come upon us. Man will have his own way, and would still enjoy the peace, favour, and blessing of God; and God in heaven will not have that arrangement. Man wants to be law-maker and law-breaker; man wants to do just what he pleases to do, and expects everything to be according to his mind and taste at last. The earth will not help him. He says, You must grow something yourself for me this year; I am not going to sow your furrows with seed. Come now, whilst I slumber you grow me some corn! And the earth says, No; obedience before harvest, toil before wealth; thou shalt work for thy bread, and work honestly, and then it shall be bread unleavened with a sense of indolence or injustice. Know then that you cannot be both God and man; understand that at the very start of life you must be under law. You can pull away the shoulder, you can put your fingers into your ears and not hear the law, but the law is still there. A man can close his eyes and say, Behold, at midday it is midnight. Who is to be believed, the fool who has shut his eyes or the sun that lights the firmament with the blessing of his glory? When men begin to say that they are guilty and that God is innocent, they have brought about this ruin, and God would have brought about peace and righteousness; when common sense rules our thinking we shall get into law and order, and afterwards into harmony and peace. We must be rigorous, we must be severe with ourselves; we must say whenever there is something wrong in the way of life, We did this: now when did we do it? how did we do it? Shall I blame somebody else, or shall I blame myself? Always be severe with your own soul. We have no title to be severe with other men until we have made our own standing sure before God.
It is interesting to observe how society was constituted before the building of the temple:—
"Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Let your hands be strong, ye that hear in these days these words by the mouth of the prophets, which were in the day that the foundation of the house of the Lord of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built. For before these days there was no hire for man, nor any hire for beast; neither was there any peace to him that went out or came in because of the affliction: for I set all men every one against his neighbour" (Zechariah 8:9-10).
That was how society went before the temple was built. A neglected temple always means a ruined society. These words are not to be applied locally or parochially; they express an eternal and unchangeable principle. A neglected God is a frowning heaven; a frowning heaven is a desolated earth. We must more and more insist upon the importance of the religious spirit in its relation to policy and commerce and agriculture, and the whole mechanism and build and meaning of society. Unless we cultivate our own spirituality to a high degree we may soon be tempted to forego this argument, or allow ourselves to be victimised into the belief that it is not an argument, but a sentiment. The first thing which the Christian man has to do is to keep up his spirituality to the very highest point. By keeping up spirituality I mean the cultivation of that insight which sees more than surface, more than so-called phenomena; that penetrating insight that sees behind all these things a Spirit, a Providence, ruling, moulding, and directing all things. We walk by faith, not by sight: Lord, increase our faith! We see nothing as it really is; the reality is beyond the appearance. Why be satisfied with the door? Smite it that it may fly open, and let the opening door be an invitation to enter and partake of the hospitality of God.
Always in Biblical history when men turned away from God, God turned away from them: "Therefore it has come to pass: Therefore I scattered them with a whirlwind among all nations: he that honoureth me I will honour, he that despiseth me I will lightly esteem." This is not arbitrary, this is not the changeable rule of a changeable court; this is simply the utterance of an eternal necessity. The sun says, He that will not have me shall have darkness and death. Is the sun cruel? Nay, the sun is clement and pitiful by announcing that fact; the sun offers its dower of light and warmth and comfort. So when we speak in Gospel words about the wicked being driven away in his wickedness, and about man neglecting to build the temple, and therefore having no harvest to reap, we are not delivering the arbitrary decrees of some fancy-created Jove; we are announcing the law of the universe, whoever made it.
What comes after the building of the temple? This:—
"For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew" (Zechariah 8:12).
Certainly; the heavens and the earth are one: if one member suffer all the members suffer with it. When the earth is wrong there is a thrill of pain all through the system to which it belongs. It is a little earth, but touch the body at any point, and instantly you communicate with the brain; and so when even this little earth sinned its first sin and damned itself in the sight of God, there went up through all the system to which it belongs a shock of agony; yea, it touched the Lord, it brought him to our aid. Let me tell business men that they cannot have any real success unless they are profoundly religious. Appearances are often to the contrary. Appearances amount to nothing. We cannot take in the case within the limits of three years or thirty years; we must look upon the whole field-space and upon the whole time-space, and this is written at the root of all things: A man cannot neglect God and be really rich. He may have heaps of money, but he has not wealth; he is not the owner of the wealth, the wealth is his owner; he is not proprietor, he is slave. He has locked himself up in his own gold-chest, and there he famishes as if he were a beggar. His soul is fat who makes the lives of others pleasant; he is strong who shares his strength with the weak.
These are solid doctrines to rest upon—God calling for judgment; God approving the moral, the righteous, and the true; God connecting his heaven with his earth, and God's heaven shrouding itself in frowns when God's earth rushes into sin and selfishness. This is the economy in which we live. We can pull out the shoulder, chafe against the bars of the cage, but the cage is there, and we cannot escape. Much better surrender, obey; seek the appointed way to peace, which is the way of the Cross, the way of Calvary, the way of that wonder which is called by this name—none nobler—the Atonement. Do not define it, but receive it in its largeness of reconciliation and hospitality and love. Oh, fall down before it, and say, "Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief."