Committed to Returning to God
Zechariah 1:1–6; 7:8–14; 8:16–23
Zechariah 1:1–6; 7:8–14
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Cite at least one attitude and one behavior that the postexilic Judeans needed to eliminate from their lives in order to receive God’s favor.
2. Name at least one attitude and one behavior that hinder people from having God’s favor today.
3. Eliminate one attitude and one behavior that hinder his or her fellowship with God.
How to Say It
Darius Hystaspes. Duh-RYE-us Hiss-TAS-pus.
Ezekiel. Ee-ZEEK-ee-ul or Ee-ZEEK-yul.
Haggai. HAG-eye or HAG-ay-eye.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Aug. 13—How to Return to God (James 4:6–10)
Tuesday, Aug. 14—God’s Everlasting Love (Psalm 103:8–18)
Wednesday, Aug. 15—God Is My Salvation (Isaiah 12)
Thursday, Aug. 16—Return to God (Zechariah 1:1–6)
Friday, Aug. 17—The People Refuse God (Zechariah 7:8–14)
Saturday, Aug. 18—Divine Deliverance for God’s People (Zechariah 8:1–8)
Sunday, Aug. 19—Come to the Lord (Zechariah 8:14–17, 20–23)
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Return to me,” declares the Lord Almighty, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. —Zechariah 1:3
Why Teach this Lesson?
Bryant was a junkie, a crack-head, committed wholeheartedly to one thing: getting high. Lisa fed her addiction to heroin by selling her body to men. Manuel was a gang leader with blood on his hands. What do they have in common? Christ’s love touched them, transforming them, and they became committed to returning to God.
Your students may think, “I have done nothing like that! Why do I need to ‘return’ to God?” Because sin is sin. The “I deserve to relax” evening of drunkenness, the lustful gaze at a lingerie-clad woman, the uncontrolled rage at the children—in God’s eyes, these are sins that call for repentance. The penalty for sin, any sin, is death (Romans 6:23; compare James 2:10).
The powerful message of today’s lesson is that it is never too late. You are never too far. Your students can always return to God. Just as God remained faithful to Israel through years of disobedience and exile, he has never abandoned any of us. This lesson will help your students come near to God. When that happens, he will come near to them (James 4:8).
A. Turning Takes Effort
At the time I learned to drive, one of the vehicles that my family owned was a 1957 Chevrolet. It had a gearshift on the steering column and no power steering. Needless to say, turning the wheel required what seemed at times to be a Herculean effort. Both hands were needed, yet there were times when one hand had to do because the other had to be free to shift gears.
What a far cry from the convenience of today’s vehicles! Power steering now allows one to negotiate hairpin turns while sipping hot coffee or talking on a cell phone. (Some drivers, no doubt, could replace the or in the previous sentence with and!)
Today’s text from the prophet Zechariah focuses on the idea of turning from sin to the Lord. That is often easier said than done. While we may intend to make such a turn, there may be a variety of factors (peer pressure, family members, pleasures of the world, intellectual doubts, etc.) that serve as unseen hands trying to steer us in the opposite direction.
For those who earnestly seek to turn to him, however, the Lord provides encouragement. Through his Word, his Spirit, and the support of those who have already learned how to negotiate the turn, he gives us the power steering needed to defeat the efforts of those who would keep us on the same dead-end road.
The words of today’s text are still the Lord’s promise: “Return to me … and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3).
B. Lesson Background
Zechariah was a postexilic prophet. This means he prophesied after the Babylonian exile had occurred and after God’s people had been allowed to return home as a result of the decree of King Cyrus of Persia (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). That journey home took place in the year 538 b.c.
Those who returned to Judah were initially excited to be home—back in the land that God had promised would be the place where Abraham’s descendants would live. One of the first orders of business was to rebuild the temple. This was an essential part of Cyrus’s decree: “The Lord God, the God of heaven … has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2).
The work proceeded smoothly at first. Within two years of their arrival, the people had completed the foundation of the new structure. The Bible records the mixed emotions that were expressed at the dedication of the foundation. Many shouted with joy at this significant step; however, those who could remember the grandeur of Solomon’s temple and who recognized that this new temple would in no way measure up to it began to weep (Ezra 3:12-13).
Perhaps the disparity in response to the rebuilding began to dampen enthusiasm to complete the project. Ezra 4:1–5 notes the rise of opposition from without; because of this, “The work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:24). That was 520 b.c. Thus from approximately 536 to 520 b.c. (16 years), the temple of the Lord lay unfinished—a sad witness to a discouraged people.
I. Lord’s Call to Repentance (Zechariah 1:1–6)
The Lord raised up two prophets, namely Haggai and Zechariah, in about 520 b.c. to awaken the people out of their apathy and spur them on to finish what they had begun. Both prophets are mentioned in Ezra 5:1. We see the impact of their ministries in Ezra 5:2: the leaders of God’s people at this time (Zerubbabel and Jeshua, also called Joshua) “set to work to rebuild the house of God.”
A. Appeal by Words (vv. 1–3)
1. In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.
The second year of Darius is also mentioned in Ezra 4:24. As noted previously, this is 520 b.c. This particular Darius is Darius Hystaspes, who ruled the Persian Empire from 522 to 486 b.c.
The phrases in the eighth month … the word of the Lord came are standard language in prophetic books. They indicate the source of the prophet’s message. As 2 Peter 1:21 states, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
2. “The Lord was very angry with your forefathers.
Many today are quick to describe God’s love in glowing terms. At the same time, they are fearful of mentioning his wrath lest someone be offended. Not Zechariah! He wastes no time in getting right to the point: The Lord was very angry with your forefathers.
The people addressed by Zechariah are 66 years removed from the time when the Babylonian captivity took place in 586 b.c. Some had experienced the devastation of the downfall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple, but many had not. Yet God was displeased not only with that generation but with previous generations as well. Those generations had rejected his call to repentance as issued through his prophets.
God’s anger is not something that erupts suddenly as a fit of rage. Rather, it is his holy hostility toward sin. He had warned his people repeatedly of this and of the bitter consequences they would face. But, as the succeeding verses of our text show, they refused to listen.
3. “Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
The Lord’s appeal to his people is remarkably simple: Return to me, … and I will return to you. James 4:8 issues a similar call: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” God’s people had returned to the land some 18 years earlier, in 538 b.c. But have they returned to the Lord? The Lord gives us the freedom of choice—a truth reflected in the various “whoever” and “anyone” passages of the Bible (John 3:16; Romans 10:11; Revelation 22:17).
What Do You Think?
After a time away from involvement in church, people may feel a need to return to church to fulfill some type of religious ritual and feel better about themselves. Is there a danger today of Christians returning to “the land of God” physically without really returning to God spiritually? If so, how do we avoid this danger?
B. Appeal by Example (vv. 4–6a)
4. “Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord.
Zechariah’s reference to the earlier prophets could include eighth-century BC prophets such as Amos, Hosea, and Micah. These men of God came from a variety of backgrounds, and God used a variety of circumstances to speak through them. All of them, however, conveyed essentially the same message, prefaced with the authoritative words This is what the Lord Almighty says. Sadly, the response to the prophets’ appeals was also essentially the same: They would not listen or pay attention.
5. “Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever?
The answers to these questions are obvious. Both the forefathers and the prophets (that is, the audience and the messengers of the Lord who addressed them) are but a memory in Zechariah’s day. They have passed from the scene of history. True, the prophets were holy men of God (2 Peter 1:21), but they were subject to death as is every human being (Hebrews 9:27).
6a. “But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?
Because the prophets spoke as servants of the Lord and proclaimed his words and his decrees, their message cannot die (and has not died to this day). The prophets’ enemies may silence the messengers, but any effort to stifle or squelch their message is doomed to fail.
Zechariah asks, concerning the Lord’s words and statutes, did they not overtake your fathers? The word overtake carries the sense of “catching up with” those who had neglected the message. The message held them accountable. A person can run from God’s Word, but he or she cannot hide!
C. Application to Life (v. 6b)
6b. “Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’ ”
The word they in this verse gives us a slight challenge: to whom does it refer? The way that the NIV translators have chosen to punctuate this verse suggests that Zechariah is describing how the forefathers responded to the prophets’ appeal. But different punctuation would suggest that Zechariah is recording his contemporaries’ repentance before the Lord. Since Zechariah describes how the prophets’ words “overtook” the people’s fathers (first half of v. 6), it appears that this text relates the response of Zechariah’s audience.
Some of these individuals, now listening to Zechariah, had witnessed the fall of Jerusalem. They recall the anguish of being forced to travel to a pagan land. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation(s). They agree that they are “guilty as charged.” They deserved the Lord’s judgment.
The road to restoration lies in conforming our thinking and acting to God’s standards, not in trying to create excuses for ourselves or lowering those standards. Like the prodigal son, we must determine to say to our Father, “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:18).
What Do You Think?
What are some specific things you need to do to conform your thoughts and actions to God’s standards?
II. Lord’s Call to Action (Zechariah 7:8–14)
According to Zechariah 7:1, the message in verses 8–14 comes to the prophet in the “fourth year of King Darius, … on the fourth day of the ninth month.” This is a little over two years after the message that constitutes the first part of our printed text. This fourth year is thus 518 b.c.
The seventh chapter begins by describing a delegation of men sent to ask the priests and the prophets about whether they should continue to “mourn and fast in the fifth month” as they had been doing “for so many years” (7:3).In verse 4, Zechariah notes, “Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me.” Though many priests and prophets are present at this time, only Zechariah is empowered to reply to the question they raise.
Because the temple in Jerusalem had been ravaged by the Babylonians in the fifth month of the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (2 Kings 25:8-9), some Jews had begun a fast in that month to commemorate the tragic event. According to Zechariah 7:5, that fast had been going on for nearly 70 years—in other words, ever since the city had fallen in 586 b.c.
In response, Zechariah rebukes the people for their shallow acts of worship. They are shallow because those acts have not been accompanied by lives devoted to the principles that God wants to see demonstrated by his covenant people.
A. What to Do (vv. 8, 9)
8. And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah.
According to verse 4, the word of the Lord came … to Zechariah earlier. A series of questions from the prophet in verses 5–7 follows. Perhaps Zechariah pauses to give the people time to reflect on those questions before speaking once again the Lord’s message.
9. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.
The commands given here are in keeping with the kind of conduct that the Lord has always required of his people. Justice may be considered to be treating people the way God would treat them. The ideals of mercy and compassion are an essential part of this.
B. What Not to Do (v. 10)
10. “ ‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’
This verse moves from the more abstract ideals of verse 9 to specific groups who need more than high ideals—they need to see the actions of flesh and blood put on those ideals! These groups include the widow, the fatherless, the alien, and the poor. The individuals in these groups are frequently taken advantage of because their circumstances leave them vulnerable. Churches today often have opportunities to exhibit the love of Jesus by initiating ministries to those who would be considered, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45; see also James 1:27).
What Do You Think?
The heart is considered the seat of the emotions. What steps have you taken to develop a proper heart for God and his kingdom? What steps do you yet need to take?
Notice that this verse also addresses our inner motives: In your hearts do not think evil of each other. Sometimes people view the Old Testament as concerned more with outward actions to the minimization of one’s thoughts and motives. That is clearly not the case, as is apparent in the Tenth Commandment (covetousness). Also, we think of passages such as Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Of Dos and Don’ts
As I write these words, we are just two weeks removed from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the gulf coast of the United States in late August 2005. One area greatly affected was the city of New Orleans. Since that city is below sea level, levees had been built to protect it from flooding. But the levees failed, and most of the city was under water. Since New Orleans is noted for a party atmosphere and unholy events, there were some Christians quick to say that this was God’s judgment on that city. They said that the city was suffering punishment for violating God’s don’ts. But the number who said this was low in relation to the number of Christians who responded by providing various kinds of assistance to the evacuees.
Sometimes Christianity is known as a religion that focuses primarily on don’ts. The don’ts are indeed important—for example, the Ten Commandments are primarily worded that way. But the dos are important too!
The best way to counteract the charge of being primarily a religion of negative rules, a religion of don’ts, is to do positive things by showing mercy and compassion. Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson have the right idea: “Externally focused churches have the advantage of deploying people into the community where they can be church to people through their love and service. Their light is not hidden under a bushel” (The Externally Focused Church, page 28). —A. E. A.
Visual for Lesson 12
Use this visual as a discussion starter by asking,
“What are some ways that people intentionally move away from God?”
C. People’s Decision (vv. 11, 12)
11. “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears.
The they in this verse apparently refers to the former generations who were exposed to the pleas of the “earlier prophets” (Zec 7:7, 12), mentioned previously in Zechariah 1:4. What stubbornness the people had exhibited!
12. “They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.
Flint is an extremely hard material. Note the language used in Ezekiel 3:9, where God tells that prophet, “I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.”
The law and the prophets are the two primary vehicles of revelation during the Old Testament period. The two terms came to be used in such a way as to designate the equivalent of the entire Old Testament (Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Romans 3:21). The influence of God’s Spirit on the prophets is also noted (see also Nehemiah 9:30). The Lord’s angry response to the people’s stubbornness is the same as his response in Zechariah 1:2.
What Do You Think?
What modern applications can we see in Zechariah 7:12?
D. Lord’s Discipline (vv. 13, 14)
13. “ ‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Earlier we read the Lord’s invitation in Zechariah 1:3: “Return to me, … and I will return to you.” The verse before us states the negative side of this truth: God will not respond if we repeatedly ignore his appeals or merely cry out to him only as a last resort.
What Do You Think?
What are some modern examples of crying out to God as a last resort? Do you think God ever honors those cries? Why, or why not?
14. “ ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land was left so desolate behind them that no one would come or go. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’ ”
This verse describes the consequences of the people’s refusal to heed the Lord’s message through his prophets. The impact on God’s people was that they were scattered … among all the nations. As Adam and Eve had been evicted from their paradise in Eden, God’s people were ousted from their home in fulfillment of his word—a warning issued since the time of Moses (Leviticus 26:27–35; Deuteronomy 28:36-37).
The impact on the land is also noted. The land that had once flowed with milk and honey is here described as desolate and as a place where no one would come or go. In other words, normal activities could not be carried out because of the extent of the devastation. Tragic as these circumstances were, God’s people had no one to blame but themselves. They—God’s chosen people—were responsible for making the pleasant land desolate.
Losing (the) Ground
Because of sin, the ancient Israelites ended up losing the very ground that God had given them, the promised land. Losing this ground in a physical sense was preceded by losing it spiritually. Instead of growing in obedience to God, the Israelites rebelled against his will. Instead of being a pure and holy people, they became defiled by the nations around them.
This is part of a disturbing pattern. The Roman Empire, for example, also “lost it all.” A few reasons cited for the fall of this great empire include political corruption, urban decay, increased military spending at the expense of other vital needs, and a decline in morals. Rome’s downfall seems to have been predicted in Daniel 2:33-34.
It is easy to take pride in our own nation. But pride leads to a fall. We do well to remember that, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). Failure to practice righteousness can still lead nations into “losing ground” physically. For the individual, failure to practice righteousness may also mean losing the promised land of Heaven. —A. E. A.
America’s civil war ended in 1865. President Abraham Lincoln faced a particularly explosive issue: what was to be done with the southern states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy? Some demanded a stiff punishment for what they considered treason against the United States. Lincoln, however, advocated a much more conciliatory policy. His eloquent response to the matter of how to treat the states in question was that it would be “as if they had never left.”
Today’s lesson has called attention to God’s gracious invitation to forsake sinful ways and return to him. He has done all he can do to remove whatever obstacles exist. The most daunting obstacle, sin, has been addressed at the cross through God’s provision of his Son, Jesus, as an atoning sacrifice. If we choose to accept that sacrifice and respond to the Father’s invitation to come home, he will forgive us completely and make us new creatures.
It will indeed be as if we had never left.
Thought to Remember
God is now—and always has been—ready for you to return.
Father, thank you for the opportunity to leave the life of sin and return to you. We are so unworthy of such an opportunity, yet in your grace you have opened up a way through your Son, Jesus. Help us to see that whatever we give up in the process of returning to you will be far, far outweighed by what you have in store for us. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Underwood, Jonathan ; Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing