Zephaniah: Prophet of Doom

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Zephaniah 1:2-3, 7, 14-16
Zephaniah 2:3
Zephaniah 3:8-9, 11-12

Some of the prophets’ most insistent words are about the coming day of God’s wrath. Ignoring those messages is like turning a deaf ear to your doctor’s warnings about deadly disease.

In this series of studies on the Old Testament prophets we come today to the little-known prophet Zephaniah. He is going to make us think about what is without a doubt the most unpopular subject in the Bible – the wrath of God. One advantage of a systematic study of the Bible is that it forces us to consider the less pleasant passages of scripture right along with the familiar and beloved. If the Bible is the word of God, then we will need to listen to and learn from every part of it in order to come to the full truth about God.

The substance of Zephaniah’s prophetic message can be expressed in one simple sentence: The day of God’s wrath is close – and getting closer. Zephaniah’s century was very like our own. Old empires were crumbling and new ones taking their place. Nations came into and went out of existence like business corporations during a recession. It was a time of momentous events, great battles, collapse and confusion. It was an age when, as they do today, people felt that the whole world order was changing and everybody wondered what was coming next.

The particular crisis which Zephaniah addresses rose out of the religious situation in the kingdom of Judah. For about a century, ever since the destruction of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in 722 b.c., the little territory of Judah had been all that remained of the people of God in the Promised Land. More than once the southern kingdom looked as if it would also be destroyed by those same Assyrian armies. But although God miraculously delivered Jerusalem during the reign of the righteous King Hezekiah, in subsequent generations the nation’s moral and spiritual level dropped drastically. The practice of pagan customs and beliefs became more and more pronounced. Leaders broke God’s commandments, both religious and moral. They promoted idolatry, and extended protection to the occult arts of magicians, diviners and sorcerers, despite God’s abhorrence of all such practices.

Things reached their worst, though, during the long reign of King Manasseh. Astrology was so popular in Jerusalem that Manasseh erected shrines on the palace roof for the worship of the sun, moon, stars and signs of the zodiac. He even had a pagan altar put up in the court of the Lord’s Temple. And along with the people’s reckless idolatry went all the old sins of fraud and oppression, sins that prophets like Amos and Hosea had been condemning for more than a century. The situation in Judah was about as bad as it could be, with no sign of change for the better.

Dies Irae

In those circumstances a word from the Lord came to Zephaniah, and not surprisingly, it was a word of judgment describing the wrath of God:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.”

Zephaniah 1:2-3, nrsv.

Those sounds of doom rise throughout the first chapter of Zephaniah until they reach a crescendo:

“The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. . .” (v. 14ff., NIV)

This passage supplied the Christian church with one of its most powerful images of the end time: the Dies Irae, or “Day of Wrath.” Because this text was a part of the funeral service in the medieval church, Christians in past ages were continually made aware of the seriousness of life and the reality of an ultimate reckoning with a holy God.

We don’t like to talk about this very much anymore, not in the church and certainly not in the world. Like most of Zephaniah’s contemporaries, modern men and women, if they believe in an end at all, prefer to think of it as a strictly happy time when everything will turn out well, and as someone has remarked, it can be said that “a good time was had by all.” The reason for this persistent belief is that people chronically underestimate or ignore both the seriousness of human sin and the holiness of God’s nature. God cannot tolerate sin; he simply can’t coexist with it. To do so would require him to deny his very self. God will certainly destroy all sin, and he will do it on the last day, the day of wrath. He must condemn humans who persist in sin. The Bible says that God will by no means simply clear the guilty. This quality of God’s character – this absolute, implacable opposition to evil in a God whose nature is pure goodness – is what we mean by the “wrath” of God.

When we speak of God’s wrath, though, we need to be careful not to confuse it with our wrath. God does not get angry the way we do. God does not lose his temper and fly into uncontrolled rages. His wrath, unlike ours, is never arbitrary, capricious or selfish. It does not rise out of emotional imbalance or lack of self control. It is never impulsive or unjustly directed toward anyone. God’s wrath is simply his permanent, unchanging attitude against all evil as expressed in his determination to punish it.

What we must never do is to play one truth about God against another: to deny his wrath, for example, on the basis of his love. One of the oldest Christian heresies is to divide God and the Bible, arguing, for example, that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath but the New Testament God is one of love. That idea goes all the way back to a second century false teacher named Marcion, who tried to cut up the Bible and get rid of the parts he didn’t like. People are still doing that today. But it is the whole truth about God that is taught throughout the whole scripture. The Old Testament speaks often of God’s love and grace, while the New Testament has as much to say about judgment and the day of wrath. In fact, it might surprise you to know that most of the things the Bible says about hell come straight from the lips of Jesus Christ.

The fact is, wrath is an essential element in God’s nature. Some claim it is unworthy and dishonoring to God to think of him in this way. Such a view is primitive, barbaric, they argue. They say the highest religious thought will believe only the best about God, and see God as all love and forgiveness. But without wrath, the love of God would be cheap. Then nothing would make sense, nothing would matter, nothing would ever be put right. Then the people of Zephaniah’s day who were “complacent . . . who think the Lord will do nothing either good or bad’” (Zephaniah 1:12), would be correct in presuming that actions have no consequences. There would be no accountability; God would not be a real factor in anybody’s life. If all this were true, then whether your life looked more like Adolf Hitler’s or Mother Theresa’s wouldn’t make any difference to God – or to you in the end. Is that the kind of God you want to believe in? A God who is all love and no wrath would be just as much of a problem as a God who was all wrath and no love.

ANOTHER ALTERNATIVE

There is no denying that Zephaniah has a hard word to speak to us. But it’s an important word. If we take his book seriously, we will never again be careless or complacent in thinking about the day of the Lord and the return of Christ. We will remember that it will indeed be a terrible day, a day when people will cry out to the mountains and hills to cover them from the wrath of the Lamb (see Revelation 6:15-17).

But wrath and doom are never God’s last words to us. Zephaniah urges us to do something in order to prepare for the coming of this day: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (2:3). God’s true spokesmen never just condemn us or tell us we’re in danger of going to hell. God’s deepest desire is always to save, and whenever he threatens judgment it is in order to call us to repentance. Zephaniah is not quite sure yet whether it will all work out. “Perhaps,” he said, “you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” That is not exactly a ringing hope, but we know more than the prophet knew. We know about Jesus Christ, the “Rock of Ages” in whom we may hide from judgment and condemnation.

In Zephaniah’s last chapter this light of hope begins to shine ever more brightly. Like so many of the prophets, the closing section of his book presents a vivid and beautiful contrast with the darkness that has gone before. Gone are the thunderclouds of doom, the images of war and fire and death. Judgment has passed, and in its place the gentle strains of singing can be heard as the Lord’s mercy breaks forth upon his people like sunshine after a storm.

Sing, O Daughter of Zion;
shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart . . .
The Lord has taken away your punishment, . . .
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm . . .
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.

(Zephaniah 3:14-17)

Here is great encouragement for you if your trust and hope are in God! Zephaniah urges us to sing for sheer joy at the knowledge that God will save us. Of course, he can’t fill in the details of just how this happens – for that we must turn to the gospel – but he does offer us a wonderful picture of the God who is with us, “mighty to save.” The remarkable thing about this is not just that Zephaniah tells us to sing to God (v. 14). What is amazing is the news that God will sing to us – “He will rejoice over you with singing” (v. 17).

What a picture this is of the love God has for us! Think of a mother cuddling her baby in her arms, hushing its cries with her kisses, singing softly to it in gentle notes of joy-filled love. That is what we are to God, that is how he feels about us. Can you believe it? Yes, you can. It’s even better if you can feel it.

Toward the end of this brief prophecy of Zephaniah, the promises of God just pile up, one on top of another, and the best promise of all is the simplest: “. . . at that time, says God, I will bring you home” (3:20). Every good thing God has in store for us some day, all the joy of heaven, all the wonder of an eternity of delight in his presence, is expressed in that one word: we will be home.

So gloom and doom, wrath and judgment are not the end, not if you know Jesus Christ. Then God’s final word is love. He only speaks about those other things to get us to wake up and examine our lives, and to warn us of the terrible and real consequences of rejecting his love. You wouldn’t do that, would you?