If you have ever fasted, you know it’s not easy. Now it is done for a wide variety of reasons. Many of us have fasted for a medical test. The Christian practice of fasting is intended to focus our mind and heart on God.
In today’s Scripture reading, fasting was the concern of a delegation sent to the prophet from Bethel (v. 1). The people of Bethel had regularly been fasting for many years and wanted to know if they should continue. The practice of fasting in the fifth month was linked to the destruction of the temple (2 Kings 25:8–9; Jer. 52:12). Now that a new temple was under construction, they wanted to know if this observance was still necessary. Perhaps they felt it was no longer appropriate.
The question itself betrays a measure of impatience, as if the people were saying: “How long do we need to keep doing this?” The Lord’s response through the prophet came in the form of a series of questions (vv. 5–6), implying a lack of sincerity in people’s practices. The Lord’s rebuke makes it clear that religious rituals and practices are no substitute for genuine righteousness. There is an echo of Isaiah 58:2–14 in the Lord’s response. Notice that He does not answer their specific question in these verses. The answer will come in chapter 8, but first He addressed the attitude of their hearts.
We can be so caught up in the details of our religious practices that we lose sight of God. Observances that are meant to honor Him can be degraded by selfishness, compartmentalizing, and perfunctory obedience that do not engage the heart. In his response to the delegation from Bethel, Zechariah noted that empty religious observance was one of the factors that led to exile in the first place. Circumstances had changed, but apparently, some hearts had not.
Can you think of a religious observance that too easily loses its meaning? The prophet’s response focuses on two key areas that contribute to this problem: wrong motives and hypocrisy. To test a practice, we can ask ourselves two questions: Am I doing this for myself or for the Lord? Is it reflected in the way I treat others?