It is important to remember the lessons of the past; and traditions, if kept in proper perspective, can help us do that. It is equally important to embrace the future God has promised us. The past and the future revealed in the Bible are keys in motivating us to live for the Lord right now.
Trusting in the Wrong Traditions
I am afraid that in many churches today, if the pastor started preaching some kind of false doctrine or strange interpretation, the people would just sit there quietly; and at the close of the service, they would go up and shake his hand and tell him what a fine sermon it was—and then go home and eat lunch. But let the pastor get up there and suggest that the church get rid of Wednesday night dinners or change the color of the carpet, and there would be an uproar! Now he is messing with traditions—he is asking for trouble.
There is nothing wrong with traditions. Traditions are meant to honor special occasions, and we all have them. But our traditions must always uphold the truth, not take precedence over the truth or distract us from it. What we have in Zechariah 7 is the prophet Zechariah being confronted with a question about a long-standing tradition.
The opening verse in chapter 7 sets the stage. It tells us that this is taking place about two years after those visions recorded in chapters 1–6. By now, reconstruction of the temple by the former Jewish exiles is moving forward under the encouragement of Zechariah and the prophet Haggai.
At this point the people of Bethel, about twelve miles north of Jerusalem, send a delegation to Jerusalem with a question about a tradition. They ask in verse 3, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
What are they talking about? Well, if you look over at Zechariah 8:19, you discover that the Jewish people had been observing four annual fasts. These were not commanded by their law but had been instituted during their captivity to lament the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This particular fast, taking place in the fifth month, was for remembering the burning of the temple by the Babylonians.
So, these well-intentioned and sincere people of Bethel want an answer. Now that the temple is being rebuilt, should they continue fasting in the fifth month?
Instead of answering their question, Zechariah asks them some questions as directed by the Lord. Zechariah relays these questions to “all the people of the land and the priests” (verse 5). Here they are:
“When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?” (verses 5-6)
The questions are rhetorical, and the answers are obvious. They had kept the fasts throughout the seventy years of captivity, but they were not centered on the Lord at all. They were just formal acts, traditions without any God-centered worship. And the same was true of their feasting. It was really for them to feel better about themselves!
Beloved, the Lord is not bothered by their traditions; He’s interested in the motives for observing their traditions.
I think it’s rather sad, to this day, to see people observing religious traditions that have nothing to do with God at all. In fact, many people today are more faithful to human traditions than they are to God.
God looks at the heart. It is an obedient heart that pleases Him, and this is what He emphasizes in verses 9-10:
“Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
Make these your traditions!
Zechariah is reminding the Jewish people that previous generations had failed to follow God’s commands. In fact, the Lord says, “They refused to pay attention and . . . stopped their ears that they might not hear” (verse 11). They rejected the Word of God and did not even want to hear His prophets.
There are consequences to that kind of defiance. The Lord says in verse 13, “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear.” They eventually experienced God’s judgment: “I scattered them . . . among all the nations . . . and the pleasant land was made desolate” (verse 14).
Let me tell you something: God is incredibly gracious and merciful and patient, but we need to understand He is not obligated to listen to us; we are obligated to listen to Him. He is not an errand boy for the believer; He is almighty God.
In chapter 7, God urges the people to obey in light of the consequences faced by earlier generations. Now in chapter 8, God urges them to obey based on the promises of future blessings.
Both past discipline and future hope are motives for following the Lord. You are going to be a wise person if you learn from the consequences of sin in the lives of people you know; and you are going to be a wise believer if you live in light of your future with the Lord one day.
And here is Israel’s promise for the future:
“Thus says the Lord: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain.” (verse 3)
This, of course, looks to the millennial age, when Christ reigns on earth. In this wonderful season, Jerusalem will be characterized by faithfulness to God. We are told that the elderly will sit safely outdoors and children will play in the streets in safety.
Zechariah uses the promises of their future relationship with the Lord to motivate them to keep serving Him now, as we see in verse 9:
“Let your hands be strong, you who in these days have been hearing these words from the mouth of the prophets who were present on the day that the foundation of the house of the Lord of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built.”
Those working on the temple can continue their work, knowing they are part of the Lord’s plan for the nation, which culminates in a renewed relationship in a restored land. That will happen in the future—in Christ’s kingdom. Israel will experience agricultural prosperity and peace like never before. Not only will the Lord save them and bless them, but they will also be a blessing to the world (verse 13).
So in light of that future day, the Lord says to the workers here in verse 13, “Fear not, but let your hands be strong.”
Now Zechariah’s message returns to that troubling little question of the fast during the fifth month, which was raised by those people from Bethel in the previous chapter. The Lord says in verse 19 the fast of the fifth month, along with the other three fasts recalling the fall of Jerusalem, “shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.”
In other words, when the kingdom is established, their traditions of fasting are going to turn into new traditions of feasting.
Chapter 8 ends with another glimpse of millennial kingdom blessing. Redeemed Israel not only will enjoy the Lord’s personal reign from the capital city of Jerusalem, but other nations all around the world also will join with them in annual traditions of worshiping the Lord in Jerusalem.
Beloved, when you take to heart biblical history (the past) and biblical prophecy (the future), you develop a proper perspective and attitude toward those God-given responsibilities today. You belong to the King. And you are heading toward a glorious kingdom where Christ shall reign. In that day, as another prophet, Habakkuk, records, “The earth will be filled with the . . . glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
So, stay the course—run your race—but let joy be your traveling companion.
 Charles L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets (Moody Press, 1990), 308.