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As we have seen in our studies in Zechariah, the prophecy has thus far contained very little by way of imperative. In the eight visions we have considered, we have seen God pointing the people to who he is and what he was doing rather than asking them to do anything. But the middle chapters, which contain two of Zechariah’s sermons, shift the focus a little. In these chapters, God asked something of his people. But he did so in response to a question that they posed to him.

The Mosaic law mandated but a single fast: on the Day of Atonement. However, the people had, over the years, of their own volition, implemented a number of additional fasts. One of those was in the fifth month, which was a fast to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem. But now that the people had given permission to return from exile and rebuild the temple, the people who had not returned wondered whether it was still appropriate to commemorate that fast. They therefore sent representatives to Zechariah to ask whether they should continue with that fast.

Rather than answering directly, Zechariah asked a piercing question: “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?” (7:5–6). God had not commanded the fasts. The people had implemented them at their own initiative—but with a wrong attitude. The fasts commemorated and mourned the destruction of the temple and the city but not the sin that led to the destruction. The question was more concerned about the tradition than the heart that ought to have lain behind the tradition.

Zechariah went on to rebuke the people for their failure to display true religion. While they were greatly concerned to maintain the traditions of their ancestors, they were unwilling to “render true judgements” and to “show kindness and mercy to one another” (7:9). Without directly answering their question, God showed that he was more interested in the heart than in empty traditions. The people needed to live, in other words, by devotion and not by mere tradition.

In chapter 8, Zechariah delivered a second sermon, albeit seemingly tied to the first. The people who had not returned to Jerusalem were so obsessed with traditions that mourned the destruction of Jerusalem that they did not embrace God’s promises of restoration. As they wondered whether they should still commemorate the darkest day in Israel’s history, they failed to embrace God’s promises of light and hope. Zechariah, therefore, gave a stirring discourse, highlighting promise after promise of what God intended to do for his people in the future.

Warren Wiersbe highlights at least six promises in chapter 8: a rebuilt city (8:1–6); a regathered people (8:7); a restored relationship (8:8); a refreshed land (8:9–13); a renewed covenant (8:14–19); and redeemed Gentiles (8:20–23). All these promises pointed to a bright future. God wanted his people to live by his promises rather than by empty tradition.

Tradition is not inherently wrong. Indeed, evangelical Christians would probably do well to study the rich tradition and heritage of faithful Christians of bygone eras. We have a lot to learn from our Christian forebears. But we must never allow tradition to rob us of vibrant devotion and believing God’s promises. We must guard against tradition becoming mere traditionalism. Jerislav Pelikan is correct: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” It is possible for our faith to remain vibrant even as we acknowledge the Christ-honouring traditions of the past, but we must not allow tradition to rob us of the vibrancy of our faith in the present.

One of the most helpful exercises in which we can involve ourselves is reading dead people—that is, reading the works and the lives of faithful Christian brothers and sisters of the past and learning from them. Learning from the traditions of our immediate predecessors can be equally helpful. We want to avoid the chronological snobbery of which C. S. Lewis warned. Even as we do so, however, let us remember what God expects of us: true devotion and faith-filled trust in his promises.

As you meditate on Zechariah 7–8 this morning, ask God to help you avoid the pitfall of traditionalism and to live life with vibrant devotion and deep trust in his promises.