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God demands justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 23, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Zechariah 7:8-14
The name Zechariah means the “Lord has remembered.” Along with Haggai and Malachi, Zechariah was one of only three post-exilic prophets.
With a message similar to Haggai, his contemporary, Zechariah wrote to the remnant returned from Babylon (Ezra 6:14). The prophet was seeking to encourage the returned remnant by pointing out that God was at work in the world. And God was about restoring Israel to their spiritual inheritance as they prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
Writing in his book “A Popular Survey of the Old Testament,” Norman Geisler, of Southern Evangelical Seminary, states that several teachings stand out in Zechariah: (1) the centrality of the Temple in God's spiritual restoration of Israel; (2) the providence of God in bringing back His people to their land; and (3) the preeminence of the Messiah in the future spiritual restoration of Israel.
The Book of Zechariah gives a combination of eight fantastic visions and oracles of the prophet Zechariah (chapters 1-8) known as “First Zechariah.” Then there is a collection of more disjointed oracles that do not mention the prophet that are composed in a strikingly different poetic style (chapters 9-14) designated as “Second Zechariah.” Scholars tell us that these visions confirm that God plans wonderful blessings for God’s people and for Jerusalem under the anointed leadership of the high priest Joshua and the governor Zerubbel. The later oracles, however, prophesy both doom and restoration on a larger cosmic scale.
Though the background scriptures include both Zechariah 7:8-14 and Isaiah 30:18-26, I am basically going to stick with the lesson scripture, which is Zechariah 7:8-14.
Before proceeding further with Zechariah, let me say a word about the Isaiah passage. Isaiah 30:18-26 was composed in very different circumstances than our Zechariah lesson scripture. This Isaiah passage spoke to the people of Judah during the exile as the people awaited deliverance and an opportunity to return to their land. While Zechariah explains why the exile occurred and now urges faithfulness to those who have returned to Jerusalem, scholars state that the Isaiah passage gives assurance that they will return and Zion will be restored. Thus, the Zechariah passage speaks on both sides of the message of Isaiah 30: 18-26 – to why the exile happened and what happened after the exile ended. However, both passages express the faith that God alone is the deliverer and that God expects faith and obedience.
Do Not Even Think About Evil
Zechariah makes clear to the people of Judah that God’s command to act justly and show mercy is at the very heart of what God expects the human response to be. So much like the prophets before him, Zechariah’s message is about just treatment of those who are most vulnerable in our society. In verse 10, Zechariah says, “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” Of course, these concerns are not new and are addressed in the legal material of the Old Testament in very specific ways (example, Deuteronomy 15).
Zechariah then adds another whole dimension when he states that the people should also act with right intentions. Specifically, he declares, “do not desire evil in your hearts against one another” (7:10).
According to scholars, “heart’ here refers to the seat of reason, not sentimentality or emotion. The message here is that in all the thoughts and plans of the people justice should be paramount. It should not be an afterthought or something that is overlooked or neglected.
It is not enough simply to follow certain regulations about how to treat the poor. Having the right attitude toward other citizens is also critical.
Scholars remind us that Zechariah’s words are important (7:9, 10) to note since many people assume the Old Testament is dominated by law in the narrow sense of that term. In fact, however, the legal provisions of the Old Testament are usually accompanied by instructions on how to be committed in spirit to what God expects, and Zechariah illustrates that point.
However, we are informed that a better known example of what Zechariah is saying appears in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Some of the laws concerning the treatment of other people may be judged rather objectively (impartially or neutrally). For example, compliance with the commands “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13, 14) is easy to determine. But as scholars point out, the Commandments end with the demand “You shall not covet” anything that belongs to your neighbor (20:17). As you know, “covet” refers to having desire for, longing for, and wanting to possess something. The point is, it refers to internal rather than external obedience. Thus, Zechariah instructs God’s people not to “desire evil” in their hearts.
Though not exactly the same and not as specific, Zechariah’s words are similar to Jesus’ instructions in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). As you are aware, Jesus cites certain Old Testament laws or popular sayings or customs and then gives an additional expectation that involves internal commitment. One example is the statement Jesus adds to the commandment against murder: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement ...” (Matthew 5:22).
So what Zechariah’s words point out are that Jesus was not repudiating the Old Testament with his own commands, as though the Old Testament were inadequate. Rather, as scholars attest, Jesus was highlighting the deeper level of commitment that was already present in the Old Testament.
For Christians, the message here is that Jesus’ emphasis on “intent” changes the way we read passages like Zechariah 7:8-10. Rather than simply focusing on external responses we are also instructed to pay special attention to our thoughts: “do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:10).
The Bible is a Blueprint for Faithful Living
One of the main reasons for Zechariah’s disappointment with the people of Judah is that they didn’t listen to him. And their failure to listen to him had a history. Neither had the people of Judah heeded the law of Moses or the words of the prophets who had come before him.
As scholars inform us, the reference to “former prophets” in verse 12 may simply refer to previous prophets. But “law” clearly refers to the written instruction that appears in Genesis through Deuteronomy.
Now, the Scripture is the most readily available source of God’s revelation and instruction to us in how to live. Why people don’t read it more is astonishing.
When we do read the Bible we are essentially asking two questions: “Do I expect to meet God?” and “Am I willing to obey God?”
I read somewhere that the Bible provides four things:
- Doctrine – what God wants us to know!
- Reproof – what God wants us to stop doing!
- Correction – what God wants us to change!
- Instruction in righteousness!
At any rate, Jesus told a story in Luke 16:19-31 that seems appropriate here. Jesus told the story of a rich man who ignored the poor. When he died he was taken to a place of torment. From there he begged Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers to change their lives. But Abraham replied that the brothers had the Law and the Prophets of Scripture, and if they would not listen to them they would also not pay attention to someone from the dead.
The Land is Desolate
The final verses of chapter 7 record the natural outcome of God's people not listening. God does not listen to them. Indeed, this has such a tragic ring. Consequently, God allows them to be scattered “among the nations.” This, of course, has to do with the exile and the people of Jerusalem living in various parts of the Mediterranean world after that traumatic event.
The people refused to act justly and protect the poor so God scattered them among the nations. As scholars note, this explanation of what happened to the people of Judah includes two references to the land being “desolate” (7:14). The repetition of the term “desolate” emphasizes the point that the land suffered from the disobedience of the people.
Carrying this Old Testament truth forward, we should recognize that every action, whether good or evil, has an impact on the world around us, even the nonhuman world. Perhaps the obvious illustration here is when a military action leaves a landscape scarred along with its human casualties. But it is also true that every other action, however, indirect, also affects the whole world. Thus, the choice is ours. We can either do good to the benefit of the whole world, or we can do evil and leave other people and the land “devastated.”
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- What is Zechariah’s message in our scripture lesson (7:8-14) to the church today?
- Who will protect the weak from their oppressors?