On December 7, 518 BCE, almost two years after Zechariah’s eight visions on February 15, 519 assure Judah that the temple will be rebuilt (Zechariah 1:7) and two years before the dedication of the temple on March 12, 516 (Ezra 6:15-18), a delegation from Bethel comes to Jerusalem to ask Yahweh a question. They ask the “priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets.” Zechariah answers.
Bethel, it should be remembered, was a rival worship center during the Divided Kingdom. The city, which hosted a “temple of the kingdom” for Israel, had once excluded the prophets of Yahweh, but now comes to Jerusalem to seek a word from Yahweh. Amos 7:10-16 records the occasion when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, petitioned Jeroboam II to send the prophet Amos back to Judah. Now, however, representatives from Bethel come to Jerusalem to seek an answer from Yahweh.
Unlike other characters in Zechariah’s oracles, the Bethel representatives have Babylonian names. Perhaps they, too, are recent returnees from exile. Whatever the origin, their names symbolize their inquiry. Their question is about lament, mourning and fasting. Given that some have returned to the land and the temple is almost complete, should the people continue to fast? Should they continue their exilic mourning practices? In other words, is the exile over? Are our sins forgiven? Has God returned?
Exilic fasting rituals were extensive as Judah lamented its losses and mourned its sin. One third of the year was spent in lament—four of the twelve months were dedicated to fasting (Zechariah 8:19). Each month was connected to an experience in the history of the fall of Jerusalem and the subjugation of Judah. The chart below provides the links (Boda, NIV Application Commentary: Haggai, Zechariah, p. 357).
||Beginning of the Siege ofJerusalem
||2 Kgs 25:1; Jer 39:1
||2 Kgs 25:3-7; Jer 52:6-11
||2 Kgs 25:8-12; Jer 52:12-16
||Governor Gedaliah Assassinated
||2 Kgs 25:25-26; Jer 41:1-3
Exiled Judah had mourned the loss of Jerusalem and the temple for almost seventy years which was the number Jeremiah (25:11-12; 29:10), the Chronicler (2 Chronicles 36:21) and Daniel (9:2) say represented the exile. Fasting was probably a daytime fast—between dawn and sunset throughout the whole month. They were anticipating the potential end of the fasts on the fifth month of 517. Should Judah continue to fast since the seventy years are essentially over?
Zechariah responds to the question with four oracles. Each is distinguished from the other by the phrase “the word of the Lord came to Zechariah (me).”
• Why did you fast? (Zechariah 7:4-7)
• Are you still socially irresponsible like your fathers? (Zechariah 7:8-14)
• Will not Yahweh return to dwell in Jerusalem again? (Zechariah 8:1-17)
• Will not the remnant feast rather than fast? (Zechariah 8:18-23)
Yahweh responds to their question with a question: “When you fasted and mourned…for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?” The question is also extended to their eating and drinking. When they fasted during the daylight hours and then ate in the evening, why did they maintain this ritual? Who was their focus? What was their focus?
It is important to notice how Zechariah redirects the question. Bethel asks Zechariah, but he asks them to seek an answer from “all the people of the land and the priests.” This may seem like a rather general way of speaking, that is, “ask everybody” but it is more focused. Ezra 4:4, for example, uses the phrase “people of the land” to refer to those who remained in Judah during the exile. The priests are those who administer justice. This might allude to the problem of ownership, land titles and social injustice (cf. Ezekiel 11:14-17 for an illustration).
Zechariah’s question is an accusation. Those practicing injustice fasted but they did so for their own sakes rather than for Yahweh. It was not a sign of repentance. Rather, the exile became an occasion for exploitation. They continued the practices of their fathers (cf. Zechariah 7:9-10) as they took advantage of the poor and oppressed.
Yahweh has seen this before, and the earlier prophets spoke on the same point. There was an earlier time when the Negev (the southern region of Judah) and the Shephelah (the western rolling hills of Judah) were settled and prosperous, when Jerusalem itself was at rest. Though at peace, the rulers and wealthy pursued injustice instead of loving their neighbors (cf. Jeremiah 7:5-7).
Ritual fasting does not mask economic injustice. True fasting is to love your neighbor—to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (Isaiah 58:6-8). Self-centered ritualistic fasting evokes God’s rebuke but the self-denial of sharing with the poor receives God’s commendation.
So, why do you fast?