In this chapter we get more historical specificity for the context of the story. It starts with, “In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev.” One commentary sets the date at December 4, 518 B.C., and invoking the name of this specific king in his fourth year we know the temple is moving toward completion. Remember that it was King Cyrus who sent the exiles back to begin the building of the temple, then it was stalled for 18 years. When Darius took over and rebuilding started again, enemies of the people tried to stop them. Darius commanded that the initial order from Cyrus be found in the government archives, and it was, so the rebuilding commenced.
A delegation of exiles (we know they were exiles because they have Babylonian names) from Bethel come to ask the priests a question, and thus inquire of the Lord: “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” There was only one fast required of the Lord on the day of atonement, but over the many years of Israel’s sordid history numerous other mournings and fasts became part of the people’s traditions. The Lord was not impressed. Speaking through Zechariah:
5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?
He also asks when they were prosperous prior to their exile, did they not just feast for themselves? Rhetorical questions obviously. What the Lord wants is more than religious observance because such observance easily turns into being about “me”! And when things are going well, it’s easy to forget the Lord and focus on “me.” Here is, however, what a life focused on God looks like:
8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’
In other words, if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, then the perfect corollary will hold: you will love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus even adds that, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” In other words, there will be perfect harmony of thought and action in love if God is our God. Given we are sinful, even if saved, human beings, this is really hard, but that’s why as his children in Christ our promised salvation is sanctification every bit as much as justification. In our struggle to embody this kind of love, we should never forget our God’s promise to us through the Apostle John: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” God’s justice demands that he do both! Certainly now, but the “all” can only point to eternity.
But in ancient Israel their hope was more opaque, and the Lord ends this chapter reminding them of their hardhearted rebellion that brought them to this place. They needed constant reminding that by nature they refused to pay attention, stubbornly turned their backs, made their hearts hard and would not listen to the law or the words of the Lord sent through earlier prophets. So the Lord was angry. In our natural state we are no different. And that is the point: we need a salvation that comes from outside of ourselves.
Apologetics point: Many people who struggle with belief in God or who have a hard time accepting Christianity wonder why God doesn’t more clearly reveal himself to us. Many of these same people, and I think many Christians too, think that in the Bible God made himself easier to believe in, made himself obvious, difficult to ignore. There are a few cases when this was the case, and it made absolutely no difference to the fallen human heart. But most of the time the Lord never directly addressed his people in any supernatural way. He rather spoke through the prophets. So Zechariah gets a word from the Lord, or says he does, and comes to the people with that word. How do they know it is actually from the Lord? Well, they really don’t. Ancient Israelites often had a hard time telling false from true prophets, and would much rather the true prophets just shut up!
It’s actually much easier today to believe in God through science (natural revelation), Scripture (the whole history of redemption told and explained in one book), and in Christ, the one who makes sense of literally everything. As C.S. Lewis put it so well:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.