There are some dreams I’ve waked up from feeling euphoric about, but when I’ve tried to share them, I’m suddenly at a loss for words. The dream’s details disappear from memory like mist, and what’s left is a profound sense of something more wonderful than I can tell.
That’s something like what I’m feeling after writing about Zephaniah today. Like there’s something more wonderful here than I can tell.
Zephaniah prophesied during the early years of King Josiah’s reign in Judah, about 635 BC, before he made the reforms he was famous for. Josiah was one of the few good kings of Judah. He was the one who came to the throne as a boy and began removing idolatry from Judah after the Books of the Law were discovered in the temple, (NIV Study Bible notes).
He’s remembered for waging war against the idolatry of his day, smashing idols and destroying high places where his people worshipped false gods. It’s thought that Zephaniah’s words, along with the Books of the Law that Moses wrote, influenced Josiah to make the changes he made. Judah enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity during his reign and didn’t experience the judgment Zephaniah prophesied, (NIV Study Bible notes).
But judgment eventually came. After Josiah died, the people returned to their idol worship. With each successive king, they became more and more determined to find life apart from God, more and more committed to their pursuits of idolatry, luxury, and injustice. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon eventually came in and carried them off.
Some of what Zephaniah says is about the overthrow of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, and some of it is about “the day of the Lord,” the final judgment when Jesus returns. It’s a common thing among the prophets to vacillate between predicting a near fulfillment and a far off fulfillment, switching between them as if the events written about might refer to both times, near and far.
The basic message of all the prophets is to repent before judgment comes so that disaster can be avoided. Besides Jonah, Zephaniah may be the only other prophet who lived to see people repenting and turning to God, the hoped for fruit of their ministry. And while Jonah was mad that the pagan Ninevites repented, I’m guessing Zephaniah was overjoyed to see his countrymen worshipping God wholeheartedly again, if only for a little while, (for the story of Jonah, see iwantmore.blog/2020/12/14).
In Zephaniah, God says right away, like by the 2nd verse, that he will sweep away everything from the face of the earth–the men and animals on the land; the birds of the air; the fish of the sea. The wicked will be left with only a pile of rubble. I’m thinking this hasn’t literally happened yet, that it reads more like a piece of end-times prophecy. But maybe God had more in mind that it would feel like this to his people when his judgment comes–as if all is lost and everything is over, Ze 1:2-3.
God says he’ll stretch out his hand against Judah and Jerusalem and cut off every last bit of Baal worship, including even the names of the pagans and priests who do it. And then he lists what sounds like various types of pagan idolaters, Ze 1:4.
There are some who openly worship the “starry host” from their rooftops. There are others who bow down and swear by both God and Molech, the false god whose worship included child sacrifice. Evidently they think nothing of swearing by God and an idol; for them, one’s as good as another. And there are those who once followed God, who no longer “seek the Lord nor inquire of him,” Ze 1:4-6.
God says for all of them to be silent before him, “for the day of the Lord is near.” This is when their ears oughta perk up, because what’s said next isn’t good news: he’s prepared a sacrifice, but it’s not an animal. It’s his own people. And he’s inviting guests to come. We know from history and other prophets that the “guests” include the Assyrians who abuse them, and later the Babylonians who destroy their capital and their temple and carry them off into exile. God will sacrifice his people to their enemies, Ze 1:7. Sheesh.
On that day, he’ll punish the king’s sons and “all those clad in foreign clothes.” They presumably copy the cultures of other nations rather than celebrating their own. He’ll punish those who adopt the customs of idol worship, too, who reject not only their culture but their God. These folks are described as violent and deceitful, Ze 1:8-9.
There will be a lot of noise when judgment comes. God says “a cry will go up from the Fish Gate” and wailing will be heard from the trendy side of town. Crashing will be heard in the hills. Those who live in the market district–merchants who get wealthy ripping off their customers–will be wiped out and ruined. God tells them to wail, too. Financial disaster is for sure, Ze 1:10-11.
That’s when God will search through Jerusalem and find the folks who think he doesn’t know what they’re about, who think he’s checked out. These are those who say, “The Lord will do nothing either good or bad.” They depend on their wealth and their fine homes rather than on God. Zephaniah calls them complacent and says, “their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished.” It’s money that turns their hearts away from God, and in the day of their “distress and anguish,” neither their silver nor their gold will save them, Ze 1:12-13, 18.
Then Zephaniah writes in the same verse, “In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth,” Ze 1:18.
And suddenly, it feels like we’ve hit the remote and changed the channel, and we get a glimpse of the end-times, when God “will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.” I’m interested to read that it’s God’s jealousy that burns and consumes the world. (Tuck that in the back of your brain.)
Next Zephaniah calls Judah to gather together before judgment arrives. He addresses them collectively as “O shameful nation” and says it’s time to get right “before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you,” Ze 1:2. Like all the other prophets before him, Zephaniah calls them to repent before judgment comes. Maybe God will relent?
But then he says something surprising, “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger,” Ze 2:1-3.
Zephaniah’s no longer talking to the pagan idolaters, or the people who use God’s name for taking oaths, or the backsliders who used to believe. He’s not addressing the princes who pride themselves on their stylish clothes, or the hypocrites who have sex with prostitutes at shrines and then head to the temple with wine. He’s turned from the shrewd businessmen and their fancy wives who live on the right side of town–the complacent ones who live how they please and think God doesn’t see.
He’s already told those folks that God is sending his “guests” to punish them for their idolatry, greed, and deceit. “Better get on your knees!”
But here he’s talking to his true believers, those who humble themselves before God and obey him. Evidently, there are enough around to address them, and he tells them to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness, and to seek humility. With all of the starry-host-and-idol-worshippers of this nation, the crooks and swindlers and murderers and fornicators, why does Zephaniah bother to admonish the “humble of the land”?
He says why: it’s so that “perhaps” they’ll be protected when God’s anger blows through town. “Perhaps”? That’s a little disappointing. I’d be hoping to hear Zephaniah say, “Y’all don’t have anything to worry about. You’ve got VIP seats on the last train to Babylon.”
I’m guessing Zephaniah’s got at least two things in mind.
For one thing, if there are any truly humble people left in the land, their prayers for God’s protection would be heard. And they’ll need his protection on that day, because it will be “a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, a day of trumpet and battle cry…I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth,” Ze 1:15-17. Yowzer. Even if “perhaps” they’re sheltered, there’s still going to be a lot of misery and terror to live through.
Zephaniah is telling them to get prayed-up.
For the other thing, the lines between those who worship their work and wallets…and who talk to the stars from their rooftops…and who check out the new chicks at the shrines…and who talk-the-talk but don’t walk-the-walk…and who are tempted to sleep-in and skip-worship…and who get up early to pray are all very thin and fine. Who really knows where we are at any place-in-time before a holy God? Just when we think “we got this,” we realize we don’t. Just when we think we’re finally over a temptation and flyin’ high, we find we’ve flown straight into another one and fallen flat.
Being “humble in the land” isn’t something you ever get settled in, like check. Done. Sin is always right ’round the next corner, and so is the enemy, “seeking who he can devour.” His point? Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t think you’re without sticky spots of your own to repent about. Those who trust God today still need to hang out with him some more tomorrow. “Blessed are those who…watch daily at my doors,” Pr 8:34.
We never get to the place where we get over needing him. Seeking God is a lifelong pursuit of more and more relationship with him, a process of seeking and finding and continuing to seek-n-find everyday, for life, Je 29:13. Zephaniah knows there’s no end to seeking God. There’s always more of him to find, so his word for the righteous is the same as for the sinner—“Seek!”
Righteousness and humility are an interesting and rare pairing. Those who are righteous are often proud of their righteousness, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day–not at all humble. And those who are humble are often the ones who by royally screwing up have landed in the certainty that they are needy and weak–not at all righteous.
Zephaniah’s reminder to seek God includes seeking righteousness and seeking humility. Maybe it’s because of this: it would take an act of God to hold these two things together, so they’re both true at the same time, each tempering the other. It would take a work of the Spirit of God to keep a good person, humble, and a humble person, good. There’s always the temptation to fall off one side of that horse or the other. Maybe a person couldn’t truly seek righteous humility and humble righteousness without growing closer to God.
After this, Zephaniah goes on to tell what’ll happen to Judah’s neighbors, the heathen nations on all sides around them, who have insulted and mocked God’s people: God will judge them, destroy their gods, turn their land into a wasteland…and many of them will turn to him, “The Lord will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the land. The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land,” Ze 2:4-15.
Does that surprise anybody else? God’s always making friends with his enemies, always looking to have love relationships with the folks who hate him, the neighbors nobody likes. I shouldn’t be surprised to read this here in Zephaniah, but I am. And then I realize, wait, all of us at one time were God’s enemies. Enemies are the only folks God’s ever had to work with! Why? “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all,” Ro 11:32.
God’s a sucker for mercy and a happy ending.
And here it comes, right on cue. God brings in the happy ending, the high note of hope that ends most of the prophets’ books. He says that one day, people from all nations will turn to him in faith. How? Time to untuck that earlier verse about jealous fire. God will gather them and pour out his wrath on them to purify them so that “all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder,” Ze 3:8-10.
God’s jealous anger isn’t a global sized hissy fit. It’s purposeful. His wrath is poured out in order to turn people to him, to bring them to him through suffering. Does God like the purifying process he brings us through? I don’t know–I’m guessing it breaks his great big ol’ heart. What I do know is that pain is the only thing that ever gets my attention and turns me around. Well, that and God’s love. But I’m getting the idea from Zephaniah that really, they’re the same thing. God’s jealous anger is part of the vocabulary of his love, (NIV Study Bible note on Ex 20:5).
After all that God’s said through Zephaniah about judging the sin of his people to save them…and encouraging his humble people to keep seeking and finding him…and purifying people of all nations with his jealous anger so they can call on him, I’m thinking wow, what more is there left to say of God’s all inclusive love?
How about let’s celebrate? This is what God says anyway, “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!” Why? Because he has taken away all their punishment and fear, Ze 3:14-15. Sounds like God’s saying it’s time for a hootenanny to me. He’s always up for a party.
And then come these words, like a blessing and benediction after the last dance is over:
“The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing,”
These words are piled up here, one on top of the other, all saying the same sort of thing but with different words. I love how God gives us news of his love and delight in layers, knowing we need many assurances, knowing our tendency to disbelieve him. It reminds me of waves on the beach, only these are waves of words that come rolling in with nearness and safety, with delight and quiet, with joy and singing. And with a sense of his very intimate presence.
I can’t think of anything better at the end of this day than to believe that God is with me, that he is mighty enough to save me from all harm in this life and from death, that he takes great delight in me, that he calms me with his love, and that he sings over me with joy.
I’m chugged full.
David’s words tug at my heart…
“I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
before the ‘gods’ I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your unfailing love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
When I called, you answered me;
you made me bold and stouthearted.
(The psalmist praises God’s love and faithfulness. God has answered his prayer and made him bold and stouthearted. He sees how God puts his name and his word above every other thing.)
May all the kings of the earth praise you, O Lord,
when they hear the words of your mouth.
May they sing of the ways of the Lord,
for the glory of the Lord is great.
Though the Lord is on high,
he looks upon the lowly;
but the proud he knows from afar.
(Even kings should praise God for his word. God is the highest Somebody but he watches over the lowest nobody.)
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
with your right hand you save me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your love, O Lord, endures forever –-
do not abandon the works of your hands.”
(God protects him from his angry enemies, preserving him in the midst of trouble, not taking him out of it. God will finish the good work he began in him in love.)
Surely your word and your listening ear are two of the greatest gifts on earth.
My take away today, if I’m honest, is just to lie down and wallow in your love. I can’t think of anything smart to say about all that I’ve read except that I just feel loved-up, God. Thank you for this little book that’s always been lost in my Bible. What a gem.
I feel inspired to seek you in prayer and in your word. And while I’m intrigued by the idea of seeking righteousness and seeking humility, I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid they’ll eat each other up, like the gingham dog and calico cat. Thank you that you see what needs to be done and can do it without much help from me.
I think I’ll just focus on my wallowing.