They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts.
(Zechariah 7:12 ESV)
Been reading through Zechariah during my time with the Lord. Zechariah is a prophet whose ministry coincides with Haggai (our current sermon series), so it has been fruitful to see how God was shaping His people during the post-exilic period of Israel’s history. But in my reading a single verse caught my attention and left me in a bit of a cold sweat. In a warning to the people of Zechariah’s day, God reminds the people why their ancestors were disciplined with the Babylonian Exile. “They made their hearts diamond-hard.” Wow, a diamond hard heart.
It’s February, so everybody loves the idea of a heart shaped diamond, but nobody wants a diamond-hard heart, and nobody believes this is happening to them. But in the context of this chapter what really caught my attention is how this happened. You would think that the pathway to this kind of hard heart was willful rebellion wrapped up in sin and idolatry. But this chapter is not about that. Rather, Zechariah 7 is God’s response to a question about religious activity, specifically a series of regularly observed fasts.
In the first couple verse of Zechariah 7, people from Bethel come to Jerusalem to ask if they should continue a plan for a scheduled fast during the fifth month of the year. This is not a fast that was prescribed in the Law of God, but had started as some point in time as a ritual done by the people. More than likely it began as a remembrance of something God had done or during a time of seeking the Lord as a people. And the tradition of a fast continued up to the time of this text. In verse 2 we are told the reason they are asking is to entreat the favor of the Lord. This fast would be similar to the season of Lent for the Christian. And since this season is quickly upon us, this text is so helpful. I actually think the idea of Lent is a good thing, but it is also incredibly dangerous. So with the fasting of Lent, along with all other religious activities, we must make sure the motivation of our heart is right before we do the religious activity. The people who come to the priests and prophets just want a simple answer, if we are to please God do we need to do these fasts? Is God happy with us when we do our religious traditions and rituals? Yes or no was sufficient, just tell us what to do and we will do it. But the thing is that religious activity is never that simple. So God sends His word through the prophet.
But the response God gives is not about the activity of the hands and mouth, but about the condition of the heart when they are doing their religious activities. God asks the people to search their heart and discover the motivational structures that led them to fast. Did they fast for God or for themselves. Was fasting a way to humbly come before their God in repentance in order to experience more of His presence and grace, or was it something they did that somehow fulfilled religious conditions and put God in their debt. Did their religious activity leave them believing that they had done their part and now God needed to do His part, or was fasting an act of worship opening their hearts to be recipients of grace. The text is pretty clear, the answer is that when they fasted it was really for themselves. And when they ate religious meals, those too were for self rather than flowing from a heart that desired intimacy with their Creator. They did their duty, fulfilled the requirements religion expected, and expected God to act because their outward actions were proper. The Word of the Lord through the mouth of the prophet Zechariah is telling us that this is the pathway to a diamond hard heart! It is through church attendance, being baptized, saying our prayers at the family meal, occasional Bible reading. taking Communion, and even the occasional good work. The path to a diamond hard heart is not cut through the path of irreligion but through faithful adherence to religion but with a heart that sees this as a duty to be fulfilled that somehow puts makes us right with God because we did our duty and puts God in your debt. In other words, the place that leaves all of us in the most danger of being put under the judgment of God is our seat in the pew (or in our case the theater seat) in church.
Now, the response here should not be to run from church and religious activity. Fasting is a very good thing when it flows from a heart whose motivational structure is founded on worship, thanksgiving, and dependence. This leaves us in a position to experience the joy of the presence of our God, and be recipients of grace. But fasting done out of religious ritual will actually work against the intended goals and will put us as people in God’s crosshairs as the very religious act works to harden our heart. This is why Mardi Gras and Lent put together are so dadgum dangerous. There is no way a grace motivated heart an say, “Sin like crazy tonight because tomorrow we fast.” Sadly, I truly believe that this passage speaks to the key problem in the American church right now. We are religious. Even though the influence of religion is declining in our country, truth is that the majority of people call themselves “Christian” and have some affiliation to church, with about 40% attending church on a regular basis. But the vast majority, I believe, are involved in a ritualistic approach to their religious activity. They are asking their pastors to make it simple, just tell me what I have to do to be OK with God and get in to heaven and I will do it. But this is the path to a diamond hard religious heart. It is something that everyone involved in religion should fear.
So what do we do to make sure this is not happening? Thankfully, the text helps us. We begin by making sure the reason we are doing our religious acts is to know God and display His glory. But this will be demonstrated in how our lives interact with the grace we receive when we leave church. “Thus says the Lord of hosts. 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.” (Zechariah 7:9-10). Hard hearts will reject these things, which will add to the hardness of the heart. They want grace from God, but have no desire to see that grace filter into their lives. They want grace, but have no desire to see the world through eyes of grace. Hard hearts see their business as nothing more than a way fill their pockets, so they don’t think twice about the judgments they render, or how it might oppress others. They are not concerned with kindness and mercy for others, but definitely want everyone to show this to them. Religion that flows from a soft heart will have a deep care for the oppressed and powerless (the widow and fatherless), and the outsider (the sojourner, aka the immigrant).
Get this! If your religion is flowing from the Gospel and accomplishing the grace of God in your life it will change the way you interact with the world around you. Hard hearted religion has as a default mode a hardness toward the oppressed and hurting. We quickly find all the reasons we shouldn’t help them, knowing that their condition is their fault. But Gospel religion tears down the hardness of heart to the poor, the oppressed, the outsider, the immigrant. As God moves toward us, he will then move us toward the lost and hurting in the world. If your religion is not producing this in the way you see and interact in the world it may be that the motivational structure of your heart as it comes to your religion is selfish. You fast and come to church for yourself. The response is not to quit the activity, but to repent from the selfish religion as the motivational structure of your heart and begin to see your church attendance, prayer, fasting, and all other religious activities as a way to experience God, be filled with His joy and grace, and means to soften your heart to His work in the world.