How would you describe yourself? How would you describe your character? We might be tempted to qualify and choose a suitable description so that people will like us. But in some sense, the God of Zephaniah doesn't really care. This text focuses on the righteousness of God. What's also important is that the God we have been seeing in Zephaniah is the same God today! He is not an OT God of wrath and a loving and merciful God today. This is important to remember.
(A) Within the city: cancer and lions (Zephaniah 3:1-4)
Zephaniah 3 begins with God addressing Jerusalem, She is called the "oppressing city" (Zephaniah 3:1) and He highlights 2 traits, that she is rebellious (know the law but does not obey) and defiled (some kind of uncleanness) (Zephaniah 3:1a). To these 2 traits, he pronounces "woe", a call to mourn, because of what is coming to her. As we have already read, here in Zephaniah, we get a picture of God's people that is unlike what we'd think of them. They are not controlled by God's law and will, but they follow power. God's moral will is not regarded and the people are intentionally rejecting God's law. But we must also remember that God's judgment poured out on God's people is never without cause! It is always appropriate. We struggle to understand God's judgment because we cannot imagine what would necessitate this wrath. We are distant from evil, and we have the instinct to mitigate God's wrath. We are tempted to think that God is over-reacting. However, this is not too hard to relate to. If we look at the world we live in, we shouldn't be surprised. We've probably seen some kind of evil this day, and we've probably turned away from evil in order to survive.
Zephaniah gives us more detail about what Jerusalem is like in the next verse. Zephaniah 3:2 essentially tells us how they got to the description in Zephaniah 3:1. This is a people that is stubborn and unteachable. The prophets that come have been silenced, marginalised and killed. This happens when people insist on their own way. Why? The latter part of the verse explains that because she does not trust in the Lord and does not draw near to Him. There is a logic here! If you trust in the Lord and draw near to Him, you will listen to His voice and accept His correction, and no longer live apart from Him. His words and law does not seem like a chore, but is a delight. This is exactly the situation and contrast shown to us in Ps 1. The further you are from Jesus, the more likely you are inclined to seek your own way.
In Zephaniah 3:3-4, 4 groups of leaders are also identified. They are the:
- Officials (Zephaniah 3:3a), described as roaring lions. These were the people in public service, not there to serve people but perhaps more interested to display power and authority, and reaping personal gain. This is similar to the description of Satan in 1 Pet 5:8.
- Judges (Zephaniah 3:3b), who were "evening wolves, leaving nothing in the morning". They were most likely corrupt and left nothing for the public good.
- Prophets (Zephaniah 3:4a), who were "fickle and treacherous" to the Lord. They were supposed to the God's direct employees but were inconsistent. A prophet's word comes true and they don't speak of their own accord (c.f. Deut 18:15-22). The prophets were supposed to reflect who God is, and these fickle prophets were misrepresenting a God who doesn't change His mind. These are men whose hearts are corrupt. Their loyalties are not clear.
- Priests (Zephaniah 3:4b) were said to profane the holy, and were violent to the law. The priests were probably holy people doing unholy stuff, or doing unholy things with holy objects. The great irony is that these were the men who were supposed to protect and uphold the law!
These leadership positions mirrored the prophet, priest and king, formula in the Bible. This is a massive indictment of the entire leadership of Judah! How else can the people follow the Lord. If you today are in some kind of leadership, this is a reminder to watch yourself lest you lead someone else astray. No one drifts towards uncleanness and sin without first being show how, nad in the same way, no one drifts towards holiness.
(B) Within the city: the righteous Lord (Zephaniah 3:5-8)
Despite the failure of their leadership, "the LORD is within her" (Zephaniah 3:5a). Not only that, we are also told what kind of God this is. God sees what is going on and is not slow to make His judgment. When you think about it carefully, isn't it crazy that a God with no spatial dimensions is described in this way? Do you really believe that God dwells with you wherever you go and sees the injustice, pains of our hearts?
This God is also righteous, a reference to His ultimate good, moral nature. By His own eternal nature, God is good and He does not change. Christians believe that God is good and all-powerful at the same time. He is all-righteous. "Every morning" and "every dawn" He shows forth His justice and does not fail, in a sharp contrast with the failures of the leaders! Both coexist in the nation.
Zephaniah 3:6-7 goes on to talk about the nations. The rise and fall of nations are part of God's design. What looks like political calculations in our minds is actually God's hand at work. He brings countries down and up, and He does so that Judah will look at the disasters of the world and turn back in repentance instead (Zephaniah 2:7). God's desire in His righteousness is always repentance, for His people to turn back to Him and stop living in the futility of their ways. But, "all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt" (Zephaniah 2:7b).
But there is something for the people of God to learn from and do from how He acts on the nations. God calls His people to "Therefore, wait" (Zephaniah 3:8). He's not saying "do nothing" or "make a plan". He is calling them to watch carefully and set their heart on what is to come, and not to think that they are God. We might be tempted to disengage from verse 8, because we are so wired to be excited about what we can do. But here, God is calling us to wait and watch Him work and take action!
What practical steps can we take from this? We need to deepen our theology and ask hIm to show us what He looks like in His righteousness! Do you think it is possible to pray that this verse come true? But surely the desire to want to know God as He has revealed Himself also means seeing His justice and righteousness? God is also just and righteousness, not just loving and merciful! The hymn "O Worship the King" speaks of His power, and He is referred to as our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days. This is a God who is clothed with splendor and girded with praise. His might is balanced with His grace, and His wrath is also visible. Yet, His kindness is visible in the air, the light and in nature. Therefore, who are we? We are children of dust, feeble and frail. His mercies are so tender and firm to the end. The hymn writer wrote this hymn after reflecting on the many qualities of God.
As we read Zephaniah 3:1-8 today, we are reminded that God's people can be wicked and stubborn. And God is always righteous and does no injustice. He exercises His justice every single day. What do you think of God? Maybe we're less excited about wanting to know God and more interested in reaping His benefit for us? Do you know His laws and moral character? Let us continue to read Scripture to grow deeper in our understanding of God's nature and character!