Zechariah continues the prophetic theme. Israel has been hypocritical in its religious practices. It has fasted and feasted for selfish purposes. Through Zechariah, God calls for heart integrity and right actions. “This is what the Lord almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Don’t oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Don’t plot evil against each other.’ ” Israel has refused to heed. It turned a stubborn shoulder, plugged its ears and hardened their hearts rock-like. So God scattered them among the nations.
Malachi builds on this idea. He too sees Israel as having been unfaithful, but he picks up the prophetic theme of God’s redemption.
God, like a refiner’s fire, will purify Israel, come near to condemn all who practice witchcraft, cheat in marriage, tell lies in court, rob workers of their pay, mistreat widows and orphans, steal the property of foreigners or refuse to respect him.
Israel has cheated God of tithes and offerings, but if Israel obeys and fulfills its obligations, the Lord will open heaven’s floodgates to pour down uncontainable blessing.
There’s no question about the prophetic message as shaped by Zechariah and Malachi. Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Torah’s moral standards has brought God’s judgment. If Israel will repent, change its conduct and live with integrity, her fate in the world will change. God will bless her obedience with political well-being and economic prosperity. God will restore her to a former state, perhaps idealized by the human tendency to remember the good old days. It begins to sound like the “prosperity gospel” that has plagued the church in recent times.
So we wrestle with the tension between the truth that Israel had fallen into the trap of feigned religion, a religion that copped out of true worship and used its religious practices to fulfill selfish ends, and the truth that genuineness with God does bring blessing. The prophets with divinely given insight mercilessly castigate Israel for this hypocritical, self-serving attempt to manipulate God while continuing in unjust treatment of their fellow human beings. How do we resolve the tension between the prophets’ idealization of prosperity for obedience with our own situation?
As always, it helps to look to Jesus. Jesus reiterates the prophetic insight that religion that pleases God goes beyond pious acts. He affirms the connection between faith and conduct: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Nor does he connect the result of obedience to worldly prosperity. Rather, he tells us not to store up treasures on earth but in heaven. Paul also warns against those who imagine godliness is a means of gain.
With this word from Zechariah and Malachi, we come to the end of our summer with these prophets. They have called us to wrestle with fundamental issues about how God works in our human situation. They expose our frailties and fallacies, our tendency to fall into the trap of inherited ways that do not please God, to let the temptations of self-fulfilling goals come between us and the God who demands genuine worship and integrity in living. They hold our feet to the fire of truth that God does not accept pious words as a substitute for right living. Worship that does not issue in “loving mercy and doing justice” will not fly. We miss the point of this study if we think this was only Israel’s problem.
Their prophetic word grates against our natural tendencies. They demand genuineness that is not easily attained. We may not like their message. But we need it. God continues to call us to the ways that reflect God’s character in the world. Without this understanding, we miss God’s purposes for us. And God’s blessing.
John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.