Chapter 8 : 14 - 23
Zechariah continues to provide a surprising and disproportionately high amount of theological and spiritual food for thought.
Verse 14 The prophet claims to speak for God directly. He not only says “Thus saith the Lord” but identifies his own choice of language as the actual words and mind of God. Zechariah then admits that God has punished his people severely in the past. God did it. No-one else. Not other humans beings. Not the devil. God. That is one of the larger distinctions between the Old and the New Testaments. Job answered his nagging wife with the question “Shall we receive good from God - and not trouble?” Job was sure that it was God who was ultimately responsible for all his troubles. The Psalms however have a different balance reflecting the righteous man’s struggle against wicked human beings with God as the trusted and trustworthy helper, enabler and victor. Jesus clearly teaches that there is a power of evil which has huge influence in the world and over the lives of men, women and children. He Himself had greater power and on that Christianity’s hope is founded. Jesus’ resurrection is the conclusive proof of God’s power of good being stronger than the power of evil in and around earth and the human community.
The words “showed no pity” express the pain inflicted on the People of God by the Babylonians in particular. This was the same kind of inhumanity we have seen in Rwanda and Darfur and in Croatia where the human capacity for brutality and cruelty reached its utmost expressions. Even these pale into insignificance compared with The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and Mao’s mass murders. It was the scale and severity of Judah’s annihilation that confused the remnant of Israel.
Verse 15 But now the prophet indicates that that is all in the past. God’s nature and intention is to do good to the People of God. Martin Luther talked about God’s left hand. God punished with his left hand and saved with his right hand. The right hand was much stronger. But psychologists today might say that this is a damaging idea. It is contradictory and even schizophrenic. Certainly educationalists have extracted fear and punishment from the disciplinary regimes of schools. Arguably, the court system has extracted fear and punishment from sentencing policy in relation to young people. In broad terms the justice system nationally seems to have significantly downgraded and devalued human life because the prison terms for taking a life can be as little as a couple of years.
Christianity too, let us be honest, has all but abandoned any sense of hell and eternal damnation. Christianity has always had a positive response to that possibility or likelihood. You only needed to believe in Jesus Christ and you would be saved from those consequences. The fear of God was a factor in Scottish Christianity for generations. It has gone. God is love. We have lost the historic connection that existed in Scotland between God and the people. We have no faith or confidence that God loves us any more or less than anyone else - or indeed loves us at all.
Zechariah preaches the love of God in the new restoration situation of the recovering and rebuilding of Jerusalem in 518 BC. The people are to give up the fear side of their faith and to trust in the love side of God. Most sincere Christians do not find it hard to rationalise their circumstances. If suffering comes, or disappointment or trouble, they can still trust in the bigger picture of God’s care and love. They will usually point to certain evidences of God’s caring presence and providential ordering of events. Christians are reluctant to blame God for their own misfortunes although some people are tempted to cry 'What have I done to deserve this?' or 'Why me?'. These are legitimate questions amid life’s griefs but they should never be final thoughts. The context of our doubts and worries must always be the larger vision of God’s eternal love for us.
Verses 16 and 17 Zechariah grounds this positive message in the challenge to take advantage of it by proper living. 'Speak the truth to each other, he says… render true and sound judgements in your courts; do not plot against your neighbour and do not love to swear falsely'. He adds authoritatively of God 'I hate all this'.
How God must hate our society today - don’t you think? If God has such moral sensitivities and scruples, how God must loathe our collective way of life. The scale of deceit in our society is immeasurable. Insurance premiums could probably be half what they are for houses, cars and businesses if only honest and genuine claims were made. Consumer protection would hardly be necessary if manufacturers and traders were honest. The national police force could be less than half if its numerical strength if there was no fraud and theft. The court system could be unclogged if people would admit their crimes instead of pleading ‘not guilty’ when they know they are. The restraining of our human capacity for wrong doing in society costs a fortune. It is the same everywhere in the world. It seems to be getting worse. Voluntary choice for good living seems to be a minority option. More and more law and regulation is required where the voluntary consensus has broken down.
Verses 18 and 19 hark back to the complaints about fasting. Remember - the people wanted to give it all up. They were fed up with observance. Here Zechariah says these times will be transformed from miserable experiences to ones of great spiritual joy and achievement - joyful, glad occasions and happy festivals. That’s what our church-going should be too. Yes - we must confess our sins and yes we can have a deep reverence for the presence of God. But - we are to rejoice and celebrate our salvation. We are to be filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit. We are to be lifted by the power of Christ’s resurrection. It is to make a big difference to our day, our week, our life.
Love truth and peace says Zechariah. Not a bad piece of advice. Are the two compatible? We Scots have a history of being truthful but unmerciful. The battle cry of some of our Covenanting ancestors was 'Jesus and no quarter!'. Their enemies were no better and often much worse. Truth spoken in love may bring peace. But it is a risk. Everyone’s truth is different. His own. Her own. Jesus referred his disciples to Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Verses 20 - 23 give Zechariah’s vision of a Jerusalem restored to international reputation, a place of pilgrimage and of the knowledge of the living God for many nations and peoples. It will no longer be an embarrassment, an offence, a disgrace to be a Jew but, on the contrary, Jews will be respected and envied for their relationship with the living God. Has that ever happened? I am not sure. It seems that Jews have been envied in every society in which they have lived. They have been respected in some but hated in others. They have been mistrusted and persecuted as we know.
There was a time when Christians were respected in this land. It seems as if that time has gone. Christians have almost become pariahs in Britain. The Christian Gospel is disputed, its origins questioned, its founder contradicted and made mere human. In The Times newspaper on Monday the Scottish historian Tom Devine, himself a Roman Catholic, wrote an article in faint praise of John Calvin and Reformation Christianity. At least it was something. The Scottish Government has not offered to mark the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s 500th birthday nor give any credence to his positive contribution to Scottish life and history. Why? Perhaps so as not to draw attention to the differences between Reformed Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Perhaps out of fear of offending Roman Catholics. Alex Salmond is an astute politician. If he thought there would be votes in honouring John Calvin he would be doing something about it. In Tuesday’s Scotsman newspaper there was a short article about Calvin by Harry Reid to promote his journalistic revision book on John Calvin in which he emphasis Calvin’s humanity and social conscience and his concern for democracy and equality. These are the underplayed aspects of the Reformation and yet they have characterised Scotland for more than four centuries.
I cannot say with Zechariah’s confidence, that Scotland will become again a place of spiritual pilgrimage for many. I cannot say that Scots will become loved and respected in the world as I believe they once were throughout the world for education, honesty, social conscience and Christian faith. I wish it would be. We can pray that it will be. But we can do our best here. This Church can be a place of welcome and effective worship. God can meet us here through Jesus Christ. We can rejoice. But we need more of the power of heaven. We need to be where people outside ask 'What are they on?' 'I’ll have what they are having'. We are a bit off that spiritual pace. We have a fair way to go.