_ _ This occasional sermon, which the prophet preached, and which is recorded in this and the next chapter, was above two years after the former, in which he gave them an account of his visions, as appears by comparing the date of this (Zechariah 7:1), in the ninth month of the fourth year of Darius, with the date of that (Zechariah 1:1), in the eighth month of the second year of Darius; not that Zechariah was idle all that while (it is expressly said that he and Haggai continued prophesying till the temple was finished in the sixth year of Darius; Ezra 6:14, Ezra 6:15), but during that time he did not preach any sermon that was afterwards published, and left upon record, as this is. God may be honoured, his work done, and his interest served, by word of mouth as well as by writing; and by inculcating and pressing what has been taught, as well as by advancing something new. Now here we have,
_ _ I. A case proposed concerning fasting. Some persons were sent to enquire of the priests and prophets whether they should continue to observe their yearly fasts, particularly that in the fifth month, as they had done. It is uncertain whether the case was put by those that yet remained in Babylon, who, being deprived of the benefit of the solemn feasts which God's ordinance appointed them, made up the want by the solemn fasts which God's providences called them to; or by those that had returned, but lived in the country, as some rather incline to think, because they are called the people of the land, Zechariah 7:5. But, as to that, the answer given to the messengers of the captive Jews might be directed, not to them only, but to all the people. Observe,
_ _ 1. Who they were that came with this enquiry Sherezer and Regem-melech, persons of some rank and figure, for they came with their men, and did not think it below them, or any disparagement to them, to be sent on this errand, but rather an addition to their honour to be, (1.) Attendants in God's house, there to do duty and receive orders. The greatest of men are less than the least of the ordinances of Jesus Christ. (2.) Agents for God's people, to negotiate their affairs. Men of estates, having more leisure than men of business, ought to employ their time in the service of the public, and by doing good they make themselves truly great; the messengers of the churches were the glory of Christ, 2 Corinthians 8:23.
_ _ 2. What the errand was upon which they came. They were sent perhaps not with gold and silver (as those, Zechariah 6:10, Zechariah 6:11), or, if they were, that is not mentioned, but upon the two great errands which should bring us all to the house of God, (1.) to intercede with God for his mercy. They were sent to pray before the Lord, and, some think (according to the usage then), to offer sacrifice, with which they offered up their prayers. The Jews, in captivity, prayed towards the temple (as appears Daniel 6:10); but now that it was in a fair way to be rebuilt they sent their representatives to pray in it, remembering that God had said that his house should be called a house of prayer for all people, Isaiah 56:7. In prayer we must set ourselves as before the Lord, must see his eye upon us and have our eye up to him. (2.) To enquire of God concerning his mind. Note, When we offer up our requests to God it must be with a readiness to receive instructions from him; for, if we turn away our ear from hearing his law, we cannot expect that our prayers should be acceptable to him. We must therefore desire to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life that we may enquire there (Psalms 27:4), asking, not only, Lord, what wilt thou do for me? but, Lord what wilt thou have me to do?
_ _ 3. Whom they consulted. They spoke to the priests that were in the house of the Lord and to the prophets; the former were an oracle for ordinary cases, the latter for extraordinary; they were blessed with both, and would try if either could acquaint them with the mind of God in this case. Note, God having given diversities of gifts to men, and all to profit with, we should make use of all as there is occasion. They were not so wedded to the priests, their stated ministers, as to distrust the prophets, who appeared, by the gifts given them, well qualified to serve the church; nor yet were they so much enamoured with the prophets as to despise the priests, but they spoke both to the priests and to the prophets, and, in consulting both, gave glory to the God of Israel, and that one Spirit who works all in all. God might speak to them either by urim or by prophets (1 Samuel 28:6), and therefore they would not neglect either. The priests and the prophets were not jealous one of another, nor had any difference among themselves; let not the people then make differences between them, but thank God they had both. The prophets did indeed reprove what was amiss in the priests, but at the same time told the people that the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they must enquire the law at his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts, Malachi 2:7. Note, Those that would know God's mind should consult God's ministers, and in doubtful cases ask advice of those whose special business it is to search the scriptures.
_ _ 4. What the case was which they desired satisfaction in (Zechariah 7:3): Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years. Observe, (1.) What had been their past practice, not only during the seventy years of the captivity but to this time, which was twenty years after the liberty proclaimed them; they kept up solemn stated fasts for humiliation and prayer, which they religiously observed, according as their opportunities were, in their closets, families, or such assemblies for worship as they had. In the case here, they mention only one, that of the fifth month; but it appears, by Zechariah 8:19, that they observed four anniversary fasts, one in the fourth month (June 17), in remembrance of the breaking up of the wall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:6), another in the fifth month (July 4), in remembrance of the burning of the temple (Jeremiah 52:12, Jeremiah 52:13), another in the seventh month (September 3), in remembrance of the killing of Gedaliah, which completed their dispersion, and another in the tenth month (December 10), in remembrance of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, 2 Kings 25:1. Now it was very commendable in them to keep those fasts, thus to humble themselves under those humbling providences, by which God called them to weeping and mourning, thus to accommodate themselves to their troubles, and prepare themselves for deliverance. It would likewise be a means of possessing their children betimes with a due sense of the hand of the Lord gone out against them. (2.) What was their present doubt whether they should continue these fasts or no. The case is put as by a single person: Should I weep? But it was the case of many, and the satisfaction of one would be a satisfaction to the rest. Or perhaps many had left it off, but the querist will not be determined by the practice of others; if God will have him continue it, he will, whatever others do. His fasting is described by his weeping, separating himself. A religious fast must be solemnized, not only by abstinence, here called a separating ourselves from the ordinary lawful comforts of life, but by a godly sorrow for sin, here expressed by weeping. “Should I still keep such days to afflict the soul as I have done these so many years?” It is said (Zechariah 7:5) to be seventy years, computed from the last captivity, as before, Zechariah 1:12. The enquiry intimates a readiness to continue it, if God so appoint, though it be a mortification to the flesh. [1.] Something is to be said for the continuance of these fasts. Fasting and praying are good work at any time, and do good; we have always both cause enough and need enough to humble ourselves before God. To throw off these fasts would be an evidence of their being too secure, and a cause of their being more so. They were still in distress, and under the tokens of God's displeasure; and it is unwise for the patient to break off his course of physic while he is sensible of such remains of his distemper. But, [2.] There is something to be said for the letting fall of these fasts. God had changed the method of his providences concerning them, and returned in ways of mercy to them; and ought not they then to change the method of their duties? Now that the bridegroom has returned, why should the children of the bride-chamber fast? Every thing is beautiful in its season. And as to the fast of the fifth month (which is that they particularly enquire about), that, being kept in remembrance of the burning of the temple, might seem to be superseded rather than any of the other, because the temple was now in a fair way to be rebuilt. But, having long kept up this fast, they would not leave it off without advice, and without asking and knowing God's mind in the case. Note, A good method of religious services, which we have found beneficial to ourselves and others, ought not to be altered without good reason, and therefore not without mature deliberation.
_ _ II. An answer given to this case. It should seem that, though the question looked plausible enough, those who proposed it were not conscientious in it, for they were more concerned about the ceremony than about the substance; they seemed to boast of their fasting, and to upbraid God Almighty with it, that he had not sooner returned in mercy to them; “for we have done it these so many years.” As those, Isaiah 58:3, Wherefore have we fasted, and thou seest not? And some think that unbelief, and distrust of the promises of God, were at the bottom of their enquiry; for, if they had given them the credit that was due to them, they needed not to doubt but that their fasts ought to be laid aside, now that the occasion of them was over. And therefore the first answer to their enquiry is a very sharp reproof of their hypocrisy, directed, not only to the people of the land, but to the priests, who had set up these fasts, and perhaps some of them were for keeping them up, to serve some purpose of their own. Let them all take notice that, whereas they thought they had made God very much their debtor by these fasts, they were much mistaken, for they were not acceptable to him, unless they had been observed in a better manner and to better purpose.
_ _ 1. What they did that was good was not done aright (Zechariah 7:5): You fasted and mourned. They were not chargeable with the omission or neglect of the duty, though it was displeasing to the body (thy fasts were continually before me, Psalms 50:8), but they had not managed them aright. Note, Those that come to enquire of their duty must be willing first to be told of their faults. And those that seem zealous for the outside of a duty ought to examine themselves faithfully whether they have the regard they ought to have to the inside of it. (1.) They had not an eye to God in their fasting: Did you at all fast unto me, even to me? He appeals to their own consciences; they will witness against them that they had not been sincere in it, much more will God, who is greater than the heart and knows all things. You know very well that you did not at all fast to me; in fasting did you fast to me? There was the carcase and form of the duty, but none of the life, and soul, and power of it. Was it to me, even to me? The repetition intimates what a great deal of stress is laid upon this as the main matter, in that and other holy exercises, that they be done to God, even to him, with an eye to his word as our rule, and his glory as our end, in them, seeking to please him and to obtain his favour, and studious by the sincerity of our intention to approve ourselves to him. When this was wanting every fast was but a jest. To fast, and not fast to God, was to mock him and provoke him, and could not be pleasing to him. Those that make fasting a cloak for sin, as Jezebel's fast, or by it make their court to men for their applause, as the Pharisees, or that rest in outward expressions of humiliation while their hearts are unhumbled, as Ahab, do they fast to God, even to him? Is this the fast that God has chosen? Isaiah 58:5. If the solemnities of our fasting, though frequent, long, and severe, do not serve to put an edge upon devout affections, to quicken prayer, to increase godly sorrow, and to alter the temper of our minds and the course of our lives for the better, they do not at all answer the intention, and God will not accept them as performed to him, even to him. (2.) They had the same eye to themselves in their fasting that they had in their eating and drinking (Zechariah 7:6): “When you did eat, and when you did drink, on other days (nay, perhaps on your fast-days, in the observation of which you could, when you saw cause, dispense with yourselves, and take a liberty to eat and drink), did you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? Have you not always done as you had a mind yourselves? Why then do you now pretend a desire to know the mind of God? In your religious feasts and thanksgivings you have had no more an eye to God than in your fasts.” Or, rather, it refers to their common meals; they did no more design the honour of God in their fasting and praying than they did in their eating and drinking; but self was still the centre in which the lines of all their actions, natural, civil, and religious, met. They needed not be in such care about the continuance of their fasts, unless they had kept them better. Note, We miss our end in eating and drinking when we eat to ourselves and drink to ourselves, whereas we should eat and drink to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), that our bodies may be fit to serve our souls in his service.
_ _ 2. The principal good thing they should have done was left undone (Zechariah 7:7): “Should you not hear the words which the Lord has cried by the former prophets? Yes, that you should have done on your fast-days; it was not enough to weep and separate yourselves on your fast-days, in token of your sorrow for the judgments you were under, but you should have searched the scriptures of the prophets, that you might have seen what was the ground of God's controversy with your fathers, and might have taken warning by their miseries not to tread in the steps of their iniquities. You ask, Shall we do as we have done, in fasting? No, you must do that which you have not yet done; you must repent of your sins and reform you lives. This is what we now call you to, and it is the same that the former prophets called your fathers to.” To affect them the more with the mischief that sin had done them, that they might be brought to repent of it, he puts them in mind of the former flourishing state of their country: Jerusalem was then inhabited and in prosperity, that is now desolate and in distress. The cities round about, that are now in ruins, were then inhabited too and in peace. The country likewise was very populous: Men inhabited the south of the plain, which was not at all fortified, and yet they lived safely, and which was fruitful, and so they lived plentifully. But then God by the prophets cried to them, as one in earnest, and importunate with them, to amend their ways and doings, or else their prosperity would soon be at an end. “Now,” says the prophet, “you should have taken notice of that, and have inferred that what was required of them for the preventing of the judgments, and which they did not, is required of you for the removal of the judgments; and, if you do it not, all your fasting and weeping signify nothing.” Note, The words of the later prophets agree with those of the former; and, whether people are in prosperity or adversity, they must be called upon to leave their sins and do their duty; this must still be the burden of every song.