The prophetic ministry is not an extra-curricular activity of some believers. Rather, preaching is a part of our corporate worship. We affirm that in the reading and explanation of God’s Word, we are hearing God speak to us. But man would rather reach for the volume knob of his distractions. But God will be heard, and if these are the echoes of His ways, what will you do when He thunders?
1 The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah. 2 I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD. 3 I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD. 4 I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests; . . .Zephaniah 1:1-18
Summary of the Text
Zephaniah begins with a personal lineage, which appears to intimate that he’s related to the royal family; there’s also an important mention of polar opposite kings of Judah: godly Josiah and his wicked father Amon. This locates when this prophecy was given––~626BC (v1). Then commences the announcement of God’s coming wrath, which is described in all-encompassing terms; reminiscent of God’s global judgement in Noah’s day (cf. Gen. 6:7) (vv2-3). Judah and Jerusalem are brought into the crosshairs, and we begin to see why God is readying to unleash His holy wrath on the whole world: worship of Baal and the heavenly host persists (Manasseh’s influence), mixed in with a fair helping of swearing by both the Lord and Malcham, and plenty of apathetic apostasy (vv 4-6).
The Jews should lay their hand on their mouth if they think to object to this sweeping judgement, because the oft foretold “day of the Lord” was now imminent (v7). God Himself has prepared a sacrificial meal and invited His guests. The twist here is that Judah will be the sacrifice, and it would seem that the summoned guests are the nations (Cf. Jer. 10:25) which God has brought to “devour” Judah (v7b).
Certain groups are held up as epitomizing the offenses which God is coming to punish: the royal family who have arrayed themselves in “strange apparel” (v8) (Cf. 2 Ki. 10:22, Isa. 3:18), and those who “leap/rush over the threshold” in order to obtain plunder for their masters’ house (v9) (Cf. 1 Sam. 5:5). Think Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Lest the commoners think they are somehow so insignificant as to escape the Lord’s notice, Zephaniah describes the cries and howls which will issue across Jerusalem when this ruination comes (vv10-11).
God will be thorough in His search for evildoers, and there won’t be a crevice in which to hide; those who had been dismissive of former prophetic warnings won’t be able to be dismissive anymore (v12). Judah will be wholly plundered, and all the deuteronomic blessings whisked away (v13).
Zephaniah echoes and summarizes earlier prophets’ warnings of “the day of the Lord.” It is near. It is terrible. It is an inescapable reality (vv14-16). As one economist once shrewdly pointed out: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This judgement will be devastating, and neither their silver nor gold will deliver them. The fierce fire of the Lord’s jealousy is upon them and He is thundering down upon them to expel them from the land, and wish them, “good riddance (vv17-18).”
The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin
One of the most damning effects of sin is that we call evil good, and good evil. Sin is so wicked because not only do we trespass in the commission of the sinful act, but we sin by telling ourselves that the sin is necessary, even right. Not only do we sin, we redefine our sin. We buttress ourselves against what our guilty consciences witness against us.
Zephaniah presents us a vivid picture in response to man’s temptation to paper over his sin. God is coming, candle in hand, searching every nook and cranny of Jerusalem to find those who had grown indifferent to the Lord’s claim over that Holy City. God is shown here as hunting down and searching out those who have said in their hearts, “God isn’t going to do good or evil.” But as the Psalmist taught us, only the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
The Gospel Arc
Zephaniah’s opening salvo leaves no wiggle room for the warm fuzzies of our modern evangelical nannies, which all too often rush in and comfort us with “There, there…God is love.” Some scholars bemoan how derivative this book is, because it borrows imagery from more gifted prophets like Amos and Isaiah. But we should see in Zephaniah a lovely succinctness––a prophetic bluntness––made to startle the complacent. His main objective is to disturb the complacent with a simple but vibrant warning.
In some Christian circles it has become increasingly en vogue to avoid the bad news of the Gospel. They think presenting Jesus as merely an example of tolerance, love, and kindness is all the Church is called to. Good as those virtues are, they are not the ground of our salvation. Kindness is only good if defined biblically. Otherwise it becomes like a child who feeds the new puppy too much dog food simply because neither the child nor the puppy know how to stop.
But, the Gospel, faithfully preached, must first make the unrepentant sinner miserable. That is the Gospel arc we see here in this short prophetic book: a shocking rebuke, a call to repentance, and then, and only then, the assurance of mercy to those who turn to the Lord.
In our age of self-esteem, this is avoided at all cost, even in many pulpits. Nevertheless, the prophetic denouncement of sins big and small, sins of the royalty and sins of the commoners, corporate sins and individual sins, and the just wrath that awaits such sins is meant to incite sinners to ask “What must I do to be saved?”
What Must I Do?
Trying to carve out God’s love as if it can stand apart from His justice is denying His immutability. It assumes that God’s love cannot be so fierce as to burn with the heat of a thousand suns when wickedness is allowed to flourish. God will not be pitted against Himself.
Instead of blushing at the severity of the prophet’s voice, or bubble-wrapping the bad news of the Good News we need to wince. The prophetic Word insists, “Don’t ignore the warnings. Don’t minimize them. Don’t scoff at them.” When God warns, the thing you must do is ask, “Is there anything else? Show it all to me!” Don’t look for refuge in comparison shopping your sin compared to other more grievous sins.
Some may want to balk at Zephaniah’s hyperbole. Isn’t he overdoing it? But often a pastor needs to wave his hands and say in simple terms, “Stop it.” Spurgeon once commented on the severe nature of Zephaniah’s prophetic book, “I bless the Bible for being severe with my unbelief.” Do you want God to “go easy” on evil? Do you really want a God who yawns at wickedness? Do you really want God to let the vilest men never be brought to justice?
The Lord’s City
Remember that this city which is at the epicenter of God’s global judgement, was His city. Judah had broken God’s law, neglected it, mixed it with idolatry, spurned it, and were indifferent to the covenant of their King. Now the King warns, by his messenger, that He’s coming to bring justice down.
So the question is, have you hidden sin way down deep, thinking God won’t care, God won’t notice, nobody was hurt? God has a claim on you. He will search it out. He will bring it out. He will expose it, and that is a grace. But remember, the only place to flee from the wrath of the Living God is in the Living God.
There are two perspectives on when these prophecies were given. Was it before Josiah’s reforms, or after? My position is that it is after, mainly because of the reference to the “remnant of Baal” in verse 4. That being the case, how much more damning is it that they made a good start, but compromised so quickly, got distracted so easily, and in the midst of a wonderful revival many among them tried to preserve just a sliver of their idolatry?
We have made a good start at reformation here in Moscow. But let us not grow weary, lest our reformation being corrupted by compromise become a greater weight of condemnation. Are you trying to dress in strange apparel? Are you upright in business or are you rushing over the threshold to plunder the poor? Are you operating under the assumption that when judgement comes you can hide from the Lord in some remote corner of the Idaho woods? The only place to turn, the only place to flee is Jesus, the true King. The only King who became sin for us, so that all of God’s righteous wrath might be poured out upon Him instead of you. The only King who can truly and fully reform His people. So do not undertake a merely carnal reformation. That’s just French revolution in slow motion. We want a reformation which only the Spirit of God can bring. We want a revival which is sparked by the holy fire of God.