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Lesson 1: Returning to the Lord (Zechariah 1:1-6)

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Clark Clifford, who was White House counsel during the Truman Administration, was at a White House banquet one night when one of the guests turned to the woman next to him. “Did I get your name correctly?” he asked. “Is your name Post?”

“Yes, it is,” the woman said.

“Is it Emily Post?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Are you the world-renowned authority on manners?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Mrs. Post said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because,” the man said, “you have just eaten my salad.” (“Bits & Pieces,” [1/85], pp. 14-15.)

Knowing something and applying it are two different matters. It is possible to be an expert on manners and yet eat the wrong salad! It is possible to be an expert on the Bible and yet not apply that knowledge in your daily life.

Perhaps you noticed the title of this message, “Returning to God,” and thought, “This one won’t apply to me. It will be great for someone who does not know Christ, but I do know Christ. It will also hit the mark with a backsliding believer, but I’m not backsliding. So I’ll eavesdrop on the message, but there won’t be much in it for me.”

The people to whom Zechariah brought this “word of the Lord” (1:1) were probably a lot like you. They were, for the most part, believers who would have voiced their allegiance to God. They were a remnant of 50,000 Jews who had made the difficult commitment to return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C. In 536 B.C. they had begun reconstruction of the devastated temple. But opposition had mounted, and for 16 years the work had been set aside.

Meanwhile, the people got caught up in the busyness of life. It was probably not an intentional decision. They meant no harm to God. But God raised up the prophet Haggai to ask the question, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Hag. 1:4). The people responded to Haggai’s message and began to work again on the temple.

Two months into the project, “in the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the prophet” (Zech. 1:1). That date is significant! Two months into any volunteer project of this magnitude, people need a word from the Lord! They need hope and encouragement. They need the motivation that comes from knowing that this project is worthwhile. That is especially so when the people are a bunch of refugees returning to a devastated country, still surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Zechariah’s prophecy was directed to such people. He has been called the prophet of hope. His message is filled with the encouragement that God will keep His promises to His people, especially His promises regarding the Messiah. Zechariah has more Messianic prophecy than all of the other Minor Prophets combined and he is second only to Isaiah in the number of references to Christ. The New Testament cites or alludes to Zechariah at least 41 times (Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:1545). His message is that even though God’s chosen people had been scattered among the nations because of their disobedience, God still loved them and His purpose for them would still be accomplished.

While Zechariah gives hope, he is not naively optimistic. As Joyce Baldwin (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi [Tyndale O.T. Commentaries] [IVP], p. 60) says,

The book prepares God’s people for the worst calamity they can ever face, the triumph of evil over good. Even God’s representative dies at the hand of evil men. There is no room in Zechariah’s thinking for glib optimism, but when evil has done its worst the Lord remains King, and will be seen to be King by all the nations.

The book falls into two main parts. The first part (chapters 1-8) is specifically dated. The second part (chapters 9-14) is not. After the introductory theme (1:1-6), chapters 1-6 consist of eight night visions that came to Zechariah in 520 B.C. The overarching theme of these visions is that God is again working on behalf of His people and that He will bring judgment on the heathen nations that had afflicted His people. These visions encouraged the Lord’s people to continue working to rebuild the temple.

In chapters 7 and 8, dated two years later, Zechariah gives a reply to a delegation of priests from Bethel concerning certain religious fasts. The thrust of his message is to show that God is concerned about hearts that are right before Him, not just about outward religious observance. It serves as a warning to the people that as the temple was completed, the danger would be to fall into outward religion without inward reality.

Chapters 9-14 are not dated and probably were written many years (perhaps 40) later. This section consists of a number of Messianic prophecies that reveal the importance of the rebuilt temple, since Messiah will come to this temple. Even though powerful nations will arise and threaten God’s people, His prophetic plan of the ages will be carried out. Because of these prophecies, Zechariah has been called the Revelation of the Old Testament. Like Revelation, it is a difficult book to interpret. But the overall message is plain: It is an encouragement to God’s discouraged and frightened people to walk in reality with Him, because He will keep His covenant promises.

You can remember the theme of the book if you will jot down the Hebrew meanings of the three names in verse 1. Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time” (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Missions to the Jews], p. 17). God raised up Zechariah to proclaim that God remembers His chosen people and that He will bless them in His appointed time.

That message applies to us, especially if you are discouraged. When you look around at the evil in the world and the apathy or hostility toward the gospel, you may feel as if God has forgotten you. But He remembers! He will bless in His appointed time! Our job is to be obedient and faithful to Him.

In the introduction (1:1-6), Zechariah answers a basic, crucial question: How can we experience God’s blessing? Remember, this was written to people who knew God and were in the process of rebuilding His temple. Zechariah did not offer a new or different message. But since we do not always apply what we already know, he starts with a basic principle:

Returning to the Lord is the key to experiencing His blessing.

Dr. Charles Feinberg notes, “This call to return dare not be passed over lightly, for it is the basic and fundamental plea of God throughout the Bible to all sinful men” (God Remembers, p. 18). The Hebrew word “return” is the word for “turning” or “repentance.” We first come to God in repentance and faith, but it is not a one-time thing. A walk with God is marked by continual repentance or returning to Him. Zechariah’s audience had returned to the land. They were rebuilding the temple. They may have thought, “Why do we need to return to God?” He begins by answering that question.

1. Returning to the Lord is necessary because of His wrath against all sinners (1:2).

It may seem odd that Zechariah would begin a message of hope and encouragement by talking about God’s fierce anger toward sinners! The Hebrew expression is very strong. Three grammatical devices emphasize the intensity of God’s anger. First, the verb, “to be angry,” is placed first in the sentence for emphasis. Second, the Hebrew uses what is called the cognate accusative, “he was angry with anger,” which means, “God was really ticked off!” Third, the Hebrew word itself means to be full of wrath (see 2 Kings 5:11; Esther 1:12).

Does the picture of God being very angry against sinners fit with your view of Him? We live in a time that emphasizes God’s love to the neglect of His holy wrath against sin and against sinners. We glibly say, “God hates the sin, but, loves the sinner” as if somehow the sinner will never experience God’s wrath against him, but just against his sin (as separate from him)! Merrill Unger rightly observes, “Those who abuse the truth that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) and make Him a doting indulgent Father to those who sustain no genuine relationship to Him as sons, forget that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29)” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 21).

Certainly, God is full of love and mercy to every sinner who repents. But in His holiness, God cannot and does not wink at our sin or treat it lightly. His terrible wrath against all unrepentant sinners, as seen especially in the fearful doctrine of eternal punishment in hell, should cause us to fear sinning because we fear God!

But how is this message about God’s anger a word of encouragement or hope? Dr. Unger (p. 21) answers that question this way: “The warning of divine wrath is a prerequisite to the acceptance of divine grace.” In other words, a person must sense the serious danger that he is in before he gratefully accepts the offer of being rescued from that danger. When you see that you are about to perish because of your sins, the offer of God’s mercy takes on a new light!

Pastor Ray Comfort illustrates this (video, “Ten Cannons of God’s Law”) by picturing people on a commercial flight. The stewardess comes along and says, “Sir, would you like to put on this parachute? It will make your flight more comfortable.” The guy wants to have an enjoyable flight, so he puts it on. But the thing is very uncomfortable. It is heavy. The straps chafe his neck and shoulders. He can’t sit back in his seat. The other passengers laugh at this silly-looking guy. Finally, he tears off the parachute in disgust, thinking, “This thing is a big nuisance!”

What will change his opinion of that parachute and make him eager to put it on, in spite of any discomfort or ridicule? The captain comes over the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that we have just lost power to all of our engines. We will need to abandon the plane immediately. The stewardess is coming around with some parachutes….” Everyone would eagerly be grabbing those chutes, because they know that they will perish without them!

It is only when sinners realize that they are under the fierce, eternal wrath of God that they will cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” Concerning his own salvation experience, the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it this way; “He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54). Thus when we realize God’s great wrath against us as sinners, we will be desperate to find the remedy. The way to avail ourselves of that remedy is in verse 3:

2. Returning to the Lord is the human response that opens the supply of God’s personal grace (1:3).

Returning to God means turning from my sin, which is repentance. It is impossible to cling to my sin and reach for God’s salvation at the same time. To grab His salvation, I must let go of my sin. It is not just a one-time thing, of course. The first time any sinner repents and trusts in God’s sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ, God pardons him completely. But since sin keeps creeping back in, we must continually repent or return to God, not to get saved, but to walk in fellowship with the Holy One. Thus repentance or returning to God will characterize every true Christian. The Bible warns that without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Holiness is impossible if we do not develop a lifestyle of repentance or turning from sin to God.

It is important to note that God takes the initiative in this process. He invites us to return to Him. Three times in this single verse, Zechariah refers to God as the Lord of hosts to underscore His sovereign authority. None of us would dare to saunter into the presence of a powerful world ruler without an invitation or appointment. How much less should we think that we can just go to the holy Lord of hosts, God over every created power in the universe, unless He invites us! But the good news is, He does invite us! He is not waiting for us to make the first move. God has made the first move by extending the offer of pardon to us. It is our responsibility to respond.

Scripture is clear that even though repentance is our responsibility, we cannot do it in our own strength. It is the gift of God, and we must depend on Him to grant it (Acts 5:31; 11:18). As John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 21) rightly observes, “for if everything which God requires were in our power, the grace of the Holy Spirit would be superfluous.” So we must cry out to God for mercy and strength to do what He justly requires of us, namely, to return to Him.

Please note that the Lord of hosts does not say, “Return to keeping My law” or “Return to your religious duties.” Rather, He says, “Return to Me!” It is a personal appeal. I am not suggesting that we can disobey God’s standards of holiness and yet claim to be following Him. But I am saying that at the heart of repentance is the fact that we are returning to a personal God who loves us and relates to us on a personal level.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He had sunk so low in his sin that he could only hope that his father would take him back on an impersonal level as a hired hand. But when he came limping home, his father saw him from afar (he was looking!), felt compassion for him, ran to him, embraced him and kissed him. He welcomed the young man back on a personal basis as his son, not as a hired hand!

God calls every sinner to a personal relationship: “Return to Me, that I may return to you.” You may think that your sins disqualify you from ever drawing near on a personal level to a holy God. But if you will trust in Jesus’ blood, your sin is forgiven, the door is wide open, and the invitation is personal: “Return to Me.” Charles Simeon put it this way (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:431-432): “Search the inspired volume, search the annals of the whole world, and find, if you can, one mourning and believing penitent whom he cast out; or find, if you can, any limit to his mercy and grace.”

Thus Zechariah shows us our desperate need to return to the Lord, namely, His fierce anger against those who persist in sin. He then shows that when we return to the Lord on a personal level, it opens the floodgate of God’s grace. He personally turns to us. Then Zechariah cinches his opening message with a history lesson:

3. Returning to the Lord is what we should learn from the history of God’s people (1:4-6).

The prophet brings up three warnings from their history: the warning about disobedience (1:4); the warning about delay (1:5); and, the warning about divine discipline (1:6).

A. The history lesson about disobedience should teach us to return to the Lord (1:4).

By “fathers” (1:2, 4, 5, 6) Zechariah means their ancestors, but especially those who had been responsible for the Babylonian captivity. Their problem was not that God had not spoken. God spoke plainly and repeatedly through His prophets about their evil lifestyle (“ways”) and deeds. But the people refused to listen and obey.

No where is this more blatant than in Jeremiah 42 & 43. Even though the people asked Jeremiah to ask God what they should do, and they assured him that they would obey, he no sooner told them the word of the Lord than they falsely accused Jeremiah of making it up himself. It was evident that they only wanted Jeremiah to approve what they were already determined to do. More often than we care to admit, we’re just like they were! We say that we want to do God’s will until His will crosses our will!

The divine warning is not to be like our fathers in their stubborn disobedience. Most of us are far more affected by the sins of our parents and grandparents than we realize (Exod. 34:7). If we have been blessed with godly parents, then certainly we should follow their godly example. But we should never follow our parents in their sins. The problem is, most of us have already fallen into our parents’ sins before we realize what we’re doing!

When one of our kids was about two, riding in the car seat behind me, I came around a blind curve in the mountains and nearly rear-ended a car that had stopped in the middle of the road to admire the scenery. I slammed on the brakes, hit the horn, and yelled, “You jerk!” From the car seat behind me, a little voice echoed, “You jerk!” It grieved me to see my sweet little child picking up the sins of her father! I have often prayed for my children, that God would protect them from my sins.

B. The history lesson about delay should teach us to return to the Lord (1:5).

Zechariah’s point in verse 5 is that spiritual opportunity does not last forever. Their fathers had died. The prophets also had died. Guess what? We also soon will be dead! If we do not respond obediently to the Lord today, we may not have tomorrow.

It’s so easy to be a spiritual procrastinator! We deceive ourselves, “I’ll deal with this sin later! I’ll get right with God after I work through the issues I’m facing right now.” But that is often fatal! If the Lord is tugging on your heart today, saying, “Return to Me,” don’t put it off for later. Do it now! “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2).

C. The history lesson about divine discipline should teach us to return to the Lord (1:6).

The people who repented (1:6) probably refers to those who suffered the consequences of the captivity. After the nation was destroyed and they went into captivity, they came to their senses. They realized that God’s prophets had been right, and they had to admit that God had done to them just as He had said he would do. God was right and they were wrong. True repentance always exonerates God and accepts full responsibility for our own sin.

The main idea of verses 5 & 6 together is, “Although your fathers died and even God’s prophets died, His Word is still with you, and it is always true.” When God’s Word warns of His discipline on our sin, it is not an idle threat. God’s Word overtook their fathers. The word “overtake” has the idea of relentlessly pursuing and hunting down (Deut. 19:6; 28:15, 45). The idea is, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)! God always wins, so it is futile to think that you can get away with your sin!

You cannot dodge God’s Word when it warns, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). The history of God’s dealings with His people should teach us to return to the Lord.

Conclusion

“‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). That word tells us of a God who judges all sin, but who invites us to return to Him, not for judgment, but for blessing. And we must return, not just once, but over and over, as often as we sin. I know that you know that. But make sure that you’re eating the right salad!

Discussion Questions

  1. The idea of God’s wrath is not popular in our times. Should we emphasize it more, both in witnessing and with believers who fall into sin? Defend biblically.
  2. Someone says to you, “I believe in a God of love, not in a God who gets angry about sin.” How would you respond?
  3. Does God’s grace nullify the principle of sowing and reaping? Does repentance stop the harvest? Defend biblically.
  4. Some argue that repentance has no part in the gospel, which is solely by faith. How would you refute this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophecy/Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation)