Uniform 08.23.2015: God Demands Justice

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Zechariah 7:8-14

The pastor preached an excellent sermon on his first Sunday in the pulpit.

He preached the same sermon on the second Sunday. People began to talk.

He preached the same sermon on his third Sunday. People began to complain.

When he preached the same sermon on the fourth Sunday, people began to call the deacons. So the deacons called a meeting.

“Pastor,” the deacon chairperson said, “That’s a mighty fine sermon. But when are you going to preach another one?”

“Just as soon,” the pastor replied, “as you do something about that one!”

The Old Testament prophets must have felt that way sometimes. Generation after generation of prophets preached about the justice that God expected the people to practice. For centuries they preached that worship rituals were invalid unless accompanied by proper concern for other people, and especially for the most vulnerable in the society.

The earlier prophets had said that if the people didn’t treat one another with justice, the nation would fall. And it did when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC. Now here was Zechariah, preaching to exiles who had returned from Babylon to try to rebuild Jerusalem and to reestablish the nation, and he’s preaching the same sermon: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9-10). In fact, Zechariah’s words here read like a summary of the earlier prophets’ preaching.

Now here we are, 2500 years after Zechariah lived and preached. And here we are, 2000 years after our Lord Jesus Christ came to embody the love and grace of God so that we might see clearly that God cares deeply for the outcasts, the marginalized, and the vulnerable—and that God calls us as the body of Christ to do the same.

President Jimmy Carter once said, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.” He was talking about nations, but Zechariah, the other prophets, and Jesus all say to us that one vital measure of the church and of the Christian is how we treat our weakest and most helpless neighbors.

Wouldn’t it be something if our preachers never had to preach that sermon again because we’ve done so much about it?

Discussion Questions

1. Why did the people trying to rebuild Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile need to hear the same message from God that the people heard before the Exile? What had changed? What had not changed?
2. If we read Zechariah 7:8-14 along with 7:1-7, we find that Zechariah’s words are in response to a question from a delegation from Bethel. The members of the delegation asked if they should continue to observe the annual fast that commemorated the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC. How do Zechariah’s words about the necessity of practicing justice relate to that question?
3. Zechariah said that the people should “not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor” (v 10). If Zechariah was preaching today, how might he define those groups? What groups might he add to the list?
4. How can we practice greater justice in our day-to-day living?

Reference Shelf

Meeting God’s Expectations

This historical summary has affinities with the beginning of Zechariah (1:2-6) in that it looks back on the failures of previous generations. Two significant differences appear, however, when comparing these two passages. First, Zechariah 7:8-14 puts less emphasis on the implications of this summary for the current generation, though they are implicit. They lie just below the surface, and the preceding unit (7:4-7) raised this issue quite pointedly. Zechariah 7:8-14, however, does not explicitly challenge the people of the current generation to change; rather, it implicitly admonishes them not to become like God’s people of the past. In this respect, the historical recollection is explaining the reasons for the period of punishment. A second element distinguishing this unit from Zechariah 1:2-6 is the ethical focus. Zechariah 1:2-6 centers on the call to repentance, while 7:4-7 focuses on the internal motivation for worship. By contrast, 7:8-14 centers on the behavior YHWH expects humans to exhibit toward one another, especially those less fortunate. In this respect, the combination of the three historical summaries suggests that the early postexilic period suffered from an age-old problem. Getting people to turn to YHWH in repentance is one thing, but getting them to recognize God’s expectations of their social obligations to the oppressed is another thing entirely.

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah-Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 889-890.

The Prophets on Justice

Certainly the prophetic condemnations focused on the breaking of the Law. This is especially clear in their attacks on such clearly prohibited offenses as bribery, idolatry, and murder (e.g., Jer 7:3-15). But it is also the case that the prophets concerned themselves with behavior which, under the letter of the law, may not have been illegal. They were particularly concerned, for example, with false attitudes that would permit one to observe faithfully the formalities of worship while at the same time plotting to defraud and cheat their neighbors (Amos 8:4-6; cf. 2:6-8; 5:10-12; Mic 3:9-12). Such behavior makes a mockery of justice (Amos 5:7; 6:12), and God will not abide it (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8). Gradually the prophets come to look toward the future when the ideal King will at last embody the true justice that is God’s (Isa 11:1-4) and toward the new Jerusalem where programs of social reform will assure that justice can be achieved outside the Temple and not only within it (Ezek 45:8-17; 46:16-18).

Samuel E. Balentine, “Justice/Judgment,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University, 1990), 483.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.

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