Praying Through the Bible #109
TEXT: Zechariah 7:8-14
Over the past three weeks we have looked at the issue of ritualism in our prayers and in other aspects of our spiritual lives which we all ought to be striving to avoid. The Methodist minister Samuel Chadwick said, “Truth without enthusiasm, morality without emotion, ritual without soul, are things Christ unsparingly condemned. Destitute of fire, they are nothing more than a godless philosophy, an ethical system, and a superstition.” God addressed the issue of ritualism with the Israelites who had instituted ritualistic fasts while they were in Exile. When the Jews returned from Exile, they wanted to know if they were supposed to continue keeping their man-made fasts. From God’s response through His prophet Zechariah, we are given three key insights into the roots of ritualism.
So far in this series…
1. We saw that ritualism begins when pure religion ends. God commanded the Israelites to “Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassion every man to his brother: And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.” These are all commands that we ought to obey. However, abiding by a set of rules, if your heart is not in it, is worthless to God. God wants our religious activity to be rooted in the heart and not in habit or obligation. God wants realness, not ritual, in our prayers, in our fasting, in our service, and in our worship.
2. We saw that ritualism deepens when rebellion is embraced. Verses 11 and 12 read, “But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law.” The Jews before the Exile had refused to listen to God and His prophets and had continued in their rebellion. Some of us today do the same thing: we know there are things in our lives that we need to forsake and repent of, yet we refuse to do so. All the while, we keep up an outer religious facade. We continue observing rituals, but they really don’t mean anything to us or to God because we have embraced rebellion.
3. Ritualism results in separation from a righteous God. Finally, in verses 12 and 13, we see the result of ritual and rebellion. The Bible says, “therefore came a great wrath from the Lord of hosts… It is come to pass, that as he cried, and they would not hear; so they cried, and I would not hear, saith the Lord of hosts.”
For many years, God threatened judgment on Israel. He begged them, pleaded with them, and warned them to turn back to Him — not just in their outward actions, but in their hearts. However, they did not take heed. Their hearts remained as stone — cold and unyielding to the mercy and grace of God. Finally, the judgment that God had promised came upon them, and when the children of Israel realized what had happened, it was too late.
Perhaps you can imagine hundreds and thousands of God’s people in chains and forced to march or ride nearly 1,000 miles from Israel to Babylon. Perhaps you can imagine them being assimilated into a strange culture with a different language, different customs, and pagan gods. Perhaps you can imagine them finally crying out to God in surrender and repentance. And, perhaps, you can imagine their despair and dismay when God would not hear their prayers.
That is what ritualism leads to. When we place form and function over faith, when we place pedantic platitudes over passionate prayer, God will eventually reject our offerings. He will turn His face from us as we have turned our faces from Him. He will stop hearing our prayers and accepting our fasts just as we have stopped hearing His word and obeying His commands.
Only when we return our hearts to God can we expect Him to hear our prayers. Only when we embrace pure religion and reject rebellion can we expect Him to honor our fasts. Only when we choose realness over ritual can we expect to receive His blessings.