Today's study is based on just 3 verses, but don't let that throw you off. These are 3 verses with important truths, not only for the people of Israel then, but it also has present-day implications for us!
(A) Why We Need to Hear this Call (Zephaniah 1)
It is important for us to recap and recall some of the things that we've done in the first 2 studies. So far, we've learnt:
- That the word of the Lord came to Zephaniah (Zephaniah 1:1a) -- This was his claim to authority, therefore, whatever Zephaniah writes has weight, is important and is urgent.
- The spiritual context (Zephaniah 1:1b) -- The word came at a certain time in Judah's spiritual history. This was in the period of Josiah, who followed the disobedient king Amon. Josiah was bringing the people back to obedience to God and implementing reforms (which takes time). The people were turning away from idols and back to God.
- Political context (Zephaniah 1:1b)-- This was the period of transition between kings
- The great day of the Lord is near, and he promises judgment (Zephaniah 1:14-15)
Therefore, God's word came to Zephaniah in a specific time and specific culture. This makes the passage important, because as we've seen, this letter has weight, because it is from the Lord. It speaks to a certain spiritual and political context, and God's word also comes to us in our time with specific spiritual struggles. The reality of the Day of the Lord is also true, and we are still awaiting the day of the Lord. This word is applicable to us today! How then do we view the day of the Lord? This is an important question that we'll all have to answer as we read the book of Zephaniah.
So what is Zeph 2:1-3 in relation to Zeph 1? How does the previous chapter affect how we read these verses? Zephaniah 2:1 starts with verbs ("gather") and this is the second verb after the "be silent" of Zephaniah 1:7. This is the call to action for the nation of Judah. It is so significant for us to see this in light of what we read in chapter 1. Chapter 1 tells us what is to come, but doesn't give us solutions to avoid that day or to mitigate the effects. Only in chapter 2 are we given an action and things to do and obey. In the same way, this call to repentance is clear for us today. We know what is to come, and He offers us something that we can do, that we might be hidden on that day. If we don't hear this call, we will face all that is in chapter 1!
(B) Why We Need to Heed this Call (Zephaniah 2:1-2)
After calling Judah to gather, Zephaniah proceeds to call Judah a "shameless nation" (Zephaniah 2:1). Having read the description of this nation in Zephaniah 1:4-6, we know that this is not an unwarranted accusation. But as we read this, let's not distance ourselves and think that this is for an ancient society thousands of years ago. Do you see that the same charge God brings on Judah is the same thing He can level on us today? We cannot remove ourselves from this passage, and we know that this description of "shameless nation" is also us. We too, are prone to partial repentance from a heart with mixed allegiances. Like Judah then, today, we often profess faith in God but still cling on to things of this world such as our idols and security.
Notice also that Zephaniah calls them to gather before pronouncing this judgment on them (Zephaniah 2:1). The way that it is written and said ("gather together, yes, gather") is said in a way that one would use to gather children who have done something wrong and deserve to be scolded. God is addressing the sin as a community! He is not addressing individuals and individual sins. God is interested in our personal lives and how we live as individuals, but He is also interested in how His people obey and live as a whole. This shapes the way we think about our lives today as well. We are individuals, but we are also called to live together as God's people! How does this passage help us think about sin and judgment? We are not used to this picture of God who brings destruction and judgment. God is perfectly just in judging us! He cannot tolerate sin! Sin is not just sin towards each other but all sin is fundamentally against Him, marked by a rebellion against Him. God cannot just ignore and forgive our sins just like that because although He is a loving God, He is also holy. If we don't see the severity of our own sin, we don't see the need for God's judgment on us. And ultimately, we won't see the value of the gospel, the worth of the cross and the beauty of Christ.
Zephaniah 2:2 repeats the word "before" four times, and references 3 different events ("before the decree takes effect", "before the day passes away like chaff", "before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD"). This repetitions makes us realise that this call to repentance is urgent! There is need to heed this call immediately. How does knowing the endpoint (the judgment that comes of the Day of the Lord) affect and change the way we live today? We too, are a sinful nation, deserving to be judged on the basis of His holiness. Our salvation is not based on our works, but in His grace and mercy, He provides Christ to bear the judgment and wrath on our behalf. Do we see the gospel as being applied and for us personally?
(C) How We Can Heed this Call (Zephaniah 2:3, 2 Cor 7:5-13)
Finally in Zephaniah 2:3, we see the call to action. Zephaniah calls the people to "seek the Lord" and to also seek righteousness and humility. To seek means to find in order to obtain the object that one is seeking. In these verses then, the command is to seek the Lord, righteousness and humility. How are we to obtain these? This is possible only in Christ!
Paul speaks of 2 kinds of grief in 2 Cor 7:5-13. There is a godly grief, and there is a worldly grief (2 Cor 7:10). Grief leads to repentance, but Paul also states that how you grief will not only affect how you repent, but also that how you repent affects the outcome of this repentance. Worldly grief leads to a worldly repentance, which can be characterised as:
- Selfish -- Repenting because of the consequence of sin because of its effect on me, more concerned about the horizontal effect of sin. This is a repentance out of self-interest.
- Self-righteous -- Repenting in order to earn that righteousness and standing with God. It says to God, "God, i want to repent because I want to feel like I have a hand in my own salvation".
- Destructive -- Produces death (2 Cor 7:10) and this is exactly what we see in Zephaniah.
In contrast, godly grief then leads to godly repentance which results in salvation. It is:
- Godward -- Concerned with how we've rebelled against God (i.e. the vertical nature of sin.
- Humble -- Recognises that we cannot save self and points to someone greater, and it is the picture of humlity that we see in Christ (cf. Phil 2:5-11).
The call to repentance follows a call of judgment, and is tucked between words of judgment in Zephaniah. But these verses holds out to us grace, and the possibility of being hidden in the day of the anger of the LORD. Don't be mistaken. These verses are not how we can save ourselves, but we now know that our salvation comes in someone outside of us. Christ calls us to repentance not to put on more burdens on us! He holds out His hand and imputed His righteousness in exchange for our sins! He puts on His robes of righteousness on us. Have you trusted in Him and is confident of being robed in His righteousness and not in your own flimsy rags of righteousness? He calls you today! To the one who has heard this again and again, Jesus also calls us continue to repent! There is nothing else that can save us! Every day, see your sin and repent of it, but also turn to Him and see how worthy He is.