Welcome back to the “weekly” Bible study that is actually turning out to be every other week!
Today we are going to read from a book that is not as common as other prophets.
Zephaniah (not to be confused with Zechariah), lived during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). Josiah was a King in Judah, the southern kingdom. By this time, Israel (northern kingdom) had been conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians. The people had strayed far from God and did not heed any warnings brought to them by God’s messengers (like the prophet Amos among others). And so the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom are gone, wiped from the earth because of their inability to follow God.
The people of Judah had been better at remaining faithful to God and so God protected and spared them. But like any group of people, they are going astray. So messengers are sent, and we will read one such message today.
Zephaniah is a short book (only 3 chapters), but his ability to be succinct highlights how severe the situation is. He does not talk circles but is direct when speaking to the people of Judah.
We learn who Zephaniah is based on his ancestry. He could be a priest (Jeremiah talks about a priest named Zephaniah) or have a royal background (Hezekiah was the name of a king), but just like today, there is no guarantee that there is only one person with the name.
And the uplifting message begins…or not.
This prophetic message starts off on a harsh note, probably to catch the attention of the listeners. Did it work for you? Was your response along the lines of “wow, that’s harsh”?
God will “sweep away everything from the earth” and nothing will be left.
By specifically naming groups of people (Judah, Jerusalem, priests of Baal), we find out who has upset God and get glimpses into what has happened to bring such anger: the people have begun to worship another God. And if we all remember learning the 10 commandments, we should remember that we shall have no other gods because God is a jealous God.
But the people have been led astray.
God is so upset that he doesn’t want to hear any excuses and tells people to remain silent; their actions have condemned them already. Some have worshiped another god, others have filled their lives with violence and fraud.
Note that Zephaniah develops a refrain: “ON THAT DAY” God will bring his judgment, and that day is not going to be a nice one for those who have not been following God’s way. People will be punished. Those who thought that God would continue to ignore and not respond (not doing good nor bad) will see that God is about to act.
That day will be full of distress and anguish, and nothing will save them. People had become dependent upon their harvest and money to provide safety, but nothing will save them from God’s wrath.
The small bit of hope emerges as God tells people to gather for one last chance before complete destruction on that day.
Their last chance is to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness and to seek humility. The people have been sinning against God by becoming overconfident in their own wealth and abilities, but God is about to act against all those who do not seek God.
Why do you think God is only giving a chance and not a guarantee against God’s wrath (“perhaps you shall be hidden”)?
Here God is providing hope for the remnant (small portion), for those who seek the Lord and whose lives will be spared because they are humbled. Part of Judah’s hope will come at the expense of the nations that threaten and mock Judah. Lands belonging to those who don’t follow God will be used for God’s people. Their hope is that they will have a pasture and a fortune that comes from those who anger God, which is to say that God will give them a place where they will have all they need.
But God is still angry with his people, even if there is hope for a remnant.
Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, is full of people so concerned with their own voices that they ignore warnings and advice.
Leaders are compared to lions and wolves, which we all know as vicious predators who show no shame in destroying others for their own sake.
Jerusalem has become corrupt and was eager to do so.
Hope remains in the midst of corruption: God promises to give pure speech. Many of us to this day are leery of politicians for their abilities to twist their words but appreciate those who speak truth and honesty. The same was true in Jerusalem during the time of Zephaniah. After much pride and corruption, pure speech would truly be a blessing from God.
The message in the book of Zephaniah began with a harsh warning, but we end with a song of joy.
God has taken away judgment = shown mercy and forgiveness.
God spares the people and protects them from enemies (foreign threats as well as domestic oppressors). Even the lame and the outcasts (those who suffer greatly in times of oppression where the leaders are corrupt and greedy), will rejoice. All who had been pushed from their homes will return and praise God.
Zephaniah is a short book. We read the entire book in a short amount of time, but there is much packed into 3 chapters.
A few highlights to ponder as we think about how the message given to a specific people over 2600 years ago would matter still today:
What is it that is leading us astray?
Do we have any “priests” of other gods in our midst?
Who would be the lions and wolves in our society?
Who are the enemies from whom we need protection?
Who is more concerned with their wealth than with caring for the lame and outcasts?
Who might be given “pure speech” in the midst of corruption?
What should we be doing to avoid “that day” from happening in our own lives?