A Prophet for the Twenty-First Century: Zephaniah

Posted on 11 January 2011

A prince of Israel is inspired to speak for God. His words are abidingly relevant.

A Prophet for the Twenty-First Century: Zephaniah

1:1-6

Imagine the scene. Huge crowds from all over Judah and beyond have gathered to Jerusalem, to the Temple, for one of the three great festivals of the nation’s year: the harvest festival. The congregation has gathered, the dignitaries are in place, the crowd hushed awaiting the beginning of the ceremonies…

And then, a young, junior member of the royal family (a known friend of his distant cousin the king) rises to his feet and begins to speak. Doubtless, if it had been one of the crowd the stewards would have speedily moved forward for a quick eviction. But they stand transfixed, uncertain how to handle a ‘royal’, and while they do so he begins to speak…

A sigh of relief, however, then goes round the assembly. He claims to be speaking for God, it might be out of order here but at least what he has to say is ‘orthodox’:

God is going to bring the sinful world of men and women to an end (2,3).

This is no new message. It pervades the length and breadth of the Bible. Yet, that fact can perhaps dull our senses to its truth. Zephaniah realised this and, therefore, makes his point as simply and solemnly as possible. Thus:

i) He emphasises its certainty: ‘I will certainly sweep away everything and person’.
ii) He emphasises both this and the solemnity of this fact by twice repeating the words, ‘solemnly declares the LORD’.
iii) He makes it clear that not think they are an exempted class by using language drawn from the flood story but including the fish (compare Genesis 7:21-23).
iv) He indicates the reason: man created from the dust to glorify God will return to it through failing to do so.

Zephaniah’s message is as relevant today as it ever was. We are created to live for the glory of God. All who fail to do so are under his certain judgement. You and I are expected to take this with absolute seriousness!

Yet, like Zephaniah’s original audience the reaction of most of us is probably the same: ‘thats the old Gospel, there are some sitting around me here who certainly need to hear that!‘. But at this point Zephaniah resumes his speech and he hasn’t gone far before his audience are ready to dismiss him as a religious crackpot! Put simply, he says, ‘What I mean is this, all this applies to each of you: God is going to judge this church!‘ One can well imagine the stunned, outrageous, unbelieving silence that followed.

We need to recover some of the shock of those early hearers, for God’s word to them is the same word which comes to us today. Far too many of us consider ourselves to be safe and secure in our evangelical faith (just as did the ‘evangelical Jews’ of Zephaniah’s day, after all Josiah had swept the nation clean of false religious worship). We, too, need to be warned by the prophet’s message.

Note, then, what Zephaniah teaches:

God is going to judge those who claim to be his people (4-6).

He singles out several groups of people:

1) The person with the unrenewed mind (4). He speaks against the ‘remnant of Baal’, those who purport to offer service to God but whose service is a veneer covering over attitudes which are still those of unregenerate men and women: ‘the pagan priests…even the priests of God’ (4b). Paul stresses the need for renewal of our minds (Romans 12:1,2). Only then so we develop a proper perspectice from which to conduct our lives in a godly way. Too often today, we claim to be believers but the way we conduct ourselves, especially with one another, shows that the spirit within comes from the pit. God, through Zephaniah, shows that he is as opposed to this as he is to full-blown paganism! We need to take heed lest we to are judged.

2) The person with two lives (5a). Here Zephaniah singles out the people who are one thing in public but quite another thing behind closed doors. Some people impress in public but are quite different if encountered out of the public eye. Some Christians are like this, seeking to please men like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day but failing to remember they were called to live before the all-seeing God all of the time. Is God as impressed with you in private as you think others must be by you in public? We need to heed Zephaniah’s warning. This is the attitude of a people who are, in reality, strangers to God.

3) The person who refuses to acknowledge the God’s lordship (5b). Zephaniah was a very effective preacher. He used some clever techniques to engage his hearers attention. He does that here. He speaks to those who go through the pretence of serving God but ‘who also swear by Malcam’. This is a play on words for the consonants also made up two other words: ‘their king’ and ‘Moloch’, a pagan deity (as in NIV). He seems to be saying this: here are people who offer worship to God while another ‘lord’ is still sovereign in their lives, namely self. Such is tantamount to idolatry.

We need to take this on board. Knowing God as ‘Lord’ is not an optional extra for the special believer. It it is the standard of all true citizens of God’s kingdom. There can be but one LORD and it must be him. Too few of us show by our use of time, energy, gifts, money that this is true of us.

Finally, Zephaniah addresses a fourth group:

4) The person who is a practical atheist (6). It may come as a surprise to some of us that there are more atheists about than those who claim to be so! It is just as possible to be a practising evangelical atheist as it was to be a practical Jewish atheist in Zephaniah’s time. Zephaniah singles out two different types:

a) the person who once walked faithfully before God but now religion has become a matter of routine (6a). Religious observances are undertaken, religious meetings attended, but there is no longer any desire to seek his will in the whole of life. The early zeal has been replaced by a formal acknowledgement of God ...but no more.

b) the person who has never really sought God (6b). Again, we note that he is talking to professing believers, to people like us. Too many professing believers remain at a level in which they never ever seem to take God seriously. They claim conversion, but they never really change and grow. Zephaniah speaks over the centuries to us. Are his words true for us, for me?

We must stop there… though Zephaniah’s shocked audience had yet more that God was going to say to them through him. Put simply, however, this is a passage in which God adresses each one of us and says, ‘Are you ready to meet God?‘. These people had come to Jerusalem thinking that they knew the answer. Zephaniah had to disabuse them. What about you and me? Are our lives ones of total, consistent, walking before God in all things. Nothing less characterises a true believer.

1:7-2:3

In the previous verses Zephaniah, the royal prince, has stood up among the people of God, probably at the time when the people of God were gathered for the great autumnal celebration in Jerusalem, and, addressing a people who had experience the reforms of Josiah and thought their orthodoxy was unimpeachable, had threatened them with the judgement of God. His main charge was that the outward reformation of the church-state that had occurred under the blessing of God was, nevertheless, not sufficient for him. God was looking for renewal as well as reformation.

The present section develops Zephaniah’s message more fully. Probably drawing upon the songs and prayers of the autumnal festival liturgy (the hymns, ‘The great day of the LORD is near - near and coming quickly’ and ‘Gather together, gather together’ as well as the prayers, ‘Be silent before the sovereign LORD’ and ‘Seek the LORD’) he turns the phrases which so easily tripped off the tongues of the worshippers into sentiments which demanded their wholehearted attention and response. He continues to challenge us today! He says,

Tragically, some of us may be preparing for heaven when God is preparing us for hell (1:7).

Zephaniah picks up the sentiments (and probably the phrases) of the autumnal festival with which the people of his time looked expectantly for the Day of the LORD: the great and final hope of Old Testament religion. However, there is a twist in the tale of his message: while the people think they are preparing for heaven God is preparing them for judgement! This frightening fact needed (and needs!) justification. Thus, the prophet continues by adding:

The symptoms which mark us out for judgement not glory (1:8-13).

He describes two different types of symptoms (8-11, 12f.):

a) compromised religion (8-11). Three things are said about one group among his hearers (especially culpable faults among the leaders!). The three things are described rather as in a progressive diagnosis, working from the symptoms down to the root cause. Thus, we are told that compromised religion is:

i) characterised by its adherents being indistinguishable from the unbelievers (8). Israel had been commanded to dress in a manner which markedly distinguished them from the surrounding nations. In this symbolic way they were to declare the deeper difference in attitudes, affections and the will which were expected of them. However, the people were adopting foreign dress and, in so doing, reflecting an underlying attitude to God which was distant from him. All too easily our words are belied by our conduct, for in that our standards and practices are no different from those of the unbeliever.

ii) This is seen to be true when we live by worldly standards (9). This verse is almost impossible to translate and the NIV offers only one possibility among many! Perhaps, most likely, is that Zephaniah emphasises that the people are characterised by worldly standards. They think like unbelievers because,

iii) their (and our) underlying motivation is of the world (10f.): here materialism is especially in view. Living, as unbelievers largely do, for self, they produce the fruit and lifestyle consistent with it. Whether in social (8), religious (9) or economic matters (10f.) they are indistinguishable from the world.

Note, there is no criticism of their theological orthodoxy: their beliefs. Rather, their beliefs are not carried into practice having never penetrated to the heart and will. Spiritual death is written over them with a large hand.

The NT makes the same emphasis (notably in James 2, Romans 12:1f.). Faith which is only skin deep and does not produce fruit is not true faith and renders its adherents still under the judgement of God for all their protestations and professions. Too readily evangelicalism seems to ape the Judahities of Zephaniah’s day. We also need to hear God’s prophetic denunciations of us!

b) complacent religion (12f.). We may detect a slight difference in Zephaniah’s attack here (though compromise and complacency are frequent bedfellows). He speaks of a people ‘never overwhelmed with belief’, indolent and with little energy to go the way of the world but no energy at all to work for God. Again, Zephaniah is not speaking to flagrant sinners but pew fillers who delight to sing the songs of Zion and to join the worship of God’s people but who lack any willingness to sacrifice and live for GOD. Their religion is hedonistic.

Again, far too frequently, evangelicalism is characterised by precisely such people. We need to be very watchful because:

The judgement of the compromised and the complacent is inevitable (1:14-18).

If Zephaniah lived today he might well have sought a visual aid to make this point. In kaleidoscopic fashion he flashes before his hearers as a film or video might before its watchers, a succession of vivid images which bespeak utter destruction and lostness. The language is highly evocative, not least when it pictures a city in which the fortifications have crumbled, the street corner defences have been utterly exposed (16) and a lone warrior (used though he is to the privations and devastation of war) openly weeps in abject and hopeless distress (14f.). A further picture is given: God will shake their lives off as dust from his feet because they are not his (17f.), worthless to him, mere garbage.

God urgently calls us to renewal (2:1-3).

What are we to do faced with the impending wrath of God against us? For us, as for Zephaniah’s hearers, four things are required:

i) we must come to terms with our real situation (2:1f.). One of their hymns rejoiced in the coming judgement of God on sin ( the word for ‘gather’ here is usually used for gathering stubble for burning) and on the sinful nations ( the word ‘nation’ here was usually used of pagan nations). Here Zephaniah emphasises that they are the object of God’s wrath. The people must arouse themselves from their self-deception and face facts; unpalatable as they may seem! So too do we.

Part of the problem lay with the people’s picture of God. They thought of God as the ‘not coming’ One [verse 2 can be translated ‘before “nothing” comes upon you]. To them, he was the distant, unconcerned God of deism. But, says Zephaniah, ‘not coming’ is coming! What about your mental picture of God?

ii) we must be radically changed (2:3). The call to righteousness is a call to come to God, eschewing mere legalism and seeking to respond not merely by doing the law but seeking to live out a quality of life which from the deepest parts of man responds to the will of God in righteousness. Heart, mind and will captive to the will of God.

iii) we are to live as those utterly dependent on the mercy of God. In the OT the ‘humble’ are those who, without any other hope, cast themselves entirely upon the mercy of God. We too are to live for him as those daily and utterly dependent on his mercy. We have no claim on him, only his mercy.

iv) this is our only hope (2:3, end). The ‘perhaps’ is ambiguous, perhaps it hints and God’s pessimism as to whether any will take any notice. Will you re-enforce such pessimism or cleave to him in fresh and devoted and practical commitment?

This is no easy message either to listen to or to preach. But it is vitally important. God is only interested in those who are ‘sold out’ for him! 

2:4-3:8.

A visit to Jerusalem for one of the great annual festivals would have been characterised by the visitor hearing one of the religious officials (one of the ‘school of prophets’) utter a series of messages from God against the surrounding pagan nations.

In this section Zephaniah seems to take his stand among them (rather as a Hyde Park corner speaker). Much of what he (initially) said was scarcely new…He taught (and teaches):

God will judge all of his enemies,

In 2:4-15 he speaks to a representative group of nations from the west (4-7), the east (8-11), the south (12) and the north (13-15). He thus seeks to teach that in whatever quarter of the world, God will judge the ungodly. His judgement will be sudden and unexpected (4b), total (5b) and final (9b). None will be spared (a point emphasised in 13-15, a vivid picture of utter destruction: those animals usually found far from man will roost in the centre of the city).

God has not changed. The time is coming when God will suddenly come to avenge the sinner. We have been warned.

Yet Zephaniah’s comments raise a natural question: ‘Who are God’s enemies?‘. The prophet is not ignorant of the question. Moreover, he is aware how readily we seek to evade God’s word unless it is unambiguously addressed to us. So he says:

God’s enemies are those of us who have never been broken before Him.
He describes those who have never humbly bowed before Him (‘pride’, 10), since they have never come to an end of themselves (15) and have never found a true place for God and his people (5,8).

This is true of every unbeliever today. The grossest sin is to refuse to bow before God. All other sins are merely symptoms of this one great failure.

Sadly the life of those of us who profess Christianity is also, often, no different from those whom Zephaniah rebuked in the LORD’s name. Without a deep sense of sin and need we remain self-confident and display all the marks of a selfish spirit. For us, too, God has been marginalised along with his people.

God’s judgement of his enemies will be blessing indeed upon those of us who are his children.

Nothing less than a universal (11) paradise (7,9) is described. Zephaniah will return to this theme (3:9ff.) but, at present, he is more concerned to warn the unbeliever than encourage the faithful.

The rest of our time together is occupied, especially, in looking at 3:1-8.
All Zephaniah’s hearers would have no doubt agreed with all that he had so far said. They would have reassured themselves that they were members of Josiah’s ‘Reformed Church’. However, they (and we!) are in for a shock: a shock which breaks gradually but is all the more a shock for that!

As he begins his anonymous last oracle it would be understndable that his hearers lulled themselves into thinking that he is about to reveal some other pagan nation, perhaps Egypt. However, very quickly it becomes apparent that:

God is going to judge his own people.

For it is against the ‘LORD’, the covenant God of his people, that this people have sinned (2) for they had refused God’s will for them (2a) had become defiled by sin (1) and manifested their fragmented relationship with God in their relationships with others (3ff). Whatever their claims to orthodoxy etc. their attitude to one another showed a failure to really live for him.

How sadly true this is of so many Chrisian congregations. Yet, how can the professing people of God end up like this? Zephaniah replies by teaching us that:

All too easily we can slip into a condition of enmity with God.

Disobedience and its reflex, the failure to trust God, leads to a failure to live for him. The consequence (now as then) is that in community life God’s people become indistinguishable from the world. Moreover, leaders are not exempt and often set the tone for others (4,5). As a result, however orthodox their messages, their ministries are treacherous, profane, dangerous (3,4) for they lull themselves and God’s people into a false sense of security.

Zephaniah is, thus, emphasising that perhaps the greatest enemy to the church and the individual believer is the enemy within!

God is in the midst of his people (5).

5a reads rather like the first line of a hymn: perhaps one that was frequently sung at one of the great festivals. If so, Zephaniah takes words that had so often been used to offer false assurance, and turns them on their head. He is among his people all right: and ready to avenge their sins (8).

The tragedy was, and is, that the people of God are so often blind to this obvious fact. Zephaniah bid his contemporaries look at the evidence (6) and not test his longsuffering to the limit (7) by sin exaggerated by the evidence all around them.

The knowledge of God’s presence among us is a great reassurance, but it is not only that. It is also a powerful challenge to live authentic Christian lives for our lives are lived as before him.

This passage is a solemn one which none of us dare evade. The certainty of coming judgement ought to arouse the unbelievers among us to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. But for those of us who profess to be believers, even those of us in leadership, the challenge is clear. We too are to live lives which demonstrate the reality of what we profess: lives which demonstrate our total self-abandonment and our absolute trust and obedience in him. God is satisfied with nothing less. 

3:9-20.

Thus far Zephaniah’s various addresses have been a sustained and fiery message of judgement. Only brief shafts of light have appeared among the storm-clouds and they have been quickly overclouded once again.

What then are the faithful among his people to make of his messages? Is there no hope: even for them and those of us who feel the weight of his words and the accuracy of his diagnosis?

In his final message, the prophet turns to address these people and their questions. What he has to say remains relevant today. For God does not change and the basis upon which he has operated in the past is no different from the way he acts today.

God will graciously restore his people (9-10).

The failure of the professing people of God is not his final word for that is a word of grace! God will yet have a worldwide people (10), radically renewed (9a), serving him truly (9b) in loving and mutual service (9c). However much his people fail God’s purpose does not change!

We may hear these words and be ambivalent towards them. Its wonderful but…how? Our minds ‘boggle’ at the grandeur of the promise. Thus, Zephaniah continues:

God will restore his church by restoring his people (11-13).

What seems impossible to man will be achieved by God as he roots out the pride which is the root of all sin (11) and creates a people utterly dependent on him (12). Such will discover that such self-denying church issues in ‘heaven on earth’ (13).

These two sections set before us, therefore, God’s (and our) proper ambitions for ourselves and church.

However, lest we still find his testimony too outrageous, Zephaniah adds:

God’s restoration is as certain as it will be glorious (14-17).

These verses are largely in the past tense, a technique the prophets often used to emphasise the certainty of their words: as far as they were concerned the events could be described as something that was already past!

Moreover, the picture offered is a beautiful one. As the people rejoice in the removal of their reproach so God delights in them with the satisfied silence of a captivated lover and the exuberant singing of the person who is so happy that he cannot remain silent (17). He will be as happy with them as they are with him!

This is a picture of what church-life should be and will be: may it be so among us!

However, wonderful though all this is, it is not the last word, since:

God’s restoration of his people will be soon (18-20, esp. 19).

Zephaniah describes the present deformed, dispossessed and marginalised (Oh! don’t we feel it) people (19) enjoying soon (‘at that time’ carries such a force, 19) a genuine and meaningful life (18) which is visible to the world (19).

Moreover, lest we still have doubts he adds two final assurances: verse 20 repeats the substance of verse 19 and concludes with the solemn assertion, ‘says the LORD’.

One cannot read these verses without feeling that they point to a reality that lies beyond the present world for its full realisation. This is so often true of the prophets predictions. Yet what was prophesied here did come to pass in the return from the Exile: and God’s ways are no different today.

The application to us, therefore, is along the following lines:

i) we are to be reassured that the present sorry state of the people of God (even our own church?) is not God’s final purpose. Revival, even a worldwide revival, is still God’s purpose.

ii) we are to be challenged by the teaching here and this in two ways:

a) that what is described here is true of a remnant only (13). Many among the professing people of God will miss the blessing.

b) we are to be challenged in our own commitment and ambitions. Are we wholehearted for God and do we look for a church which is characterised by the features described here? If so we are to work and pray to that end. We are not to be idle.

iii) we are to be encouraged, even in the darkness, to trust him and humbly wait for him: he will not fail us!

 

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