There are 2 big themes in the book of Zephaniah -- judgment on the Day of the Lord and the restoration on the Day of the Lord. In some sense, Zephaniah is the equivalent of Revelation in the Old Testament. But how is this book applicable for us today? Truthfully, is not hard to see that the powers of the world are fumbling. Countries don't gather and cooperate naturally. Just take a look at the newspapers. As we read Zephaniah 2, bear this in mind, that the judgment He is pouring out in chapter 2 is also what He is doing in our world today.
(A) To the South and North-East, Cush and Assyria: God hates pride (Zephaniah 2:12-15)
Through Zephaniah, God’s has proclaimed His judgment on the “shameless nation” Judah, an urged them to repent in 2:1-3. He goes on to address the nations around Judah (Zephaniah 2:4-15). The map below will help us understand the geography of the time, and why God's judgments are so significant.
|Nations||Who were they?|
|These 5 cities were mentioned in the verses. Number 1 represents Ekron, 2 represents Ashdod, 3 is Ashkelon, 4 is Gaza and 5 stood for Philistia. God dealt with the nations in a in a south to north manner in the text in Zephaniah 2. And we do know some of these nations! Some of us will know that Goliath was a Philistine and they were the traditional enemies of Israel under David and Saul.|
Moabites (Zephaniah 2:8a)
|They were the cousins of Israel through Lot’s incestuous daughters and were the ancestors of Samaritans, who were the enemies of Israel during the time of Jesus. Ruth was a Moabitess!|
Ammonites (Zephaniah 2:8b)
|Like Moab, they were the cousins of Israel through Lot’s incestuous daughters. They were also forbidden to enter the sanctuary for a few generations. The woman at the well in John 3 hailed from this place.|
Cushites (Zephaniah 2:12)
|They are what we know as Ethiopians today, and a notable mention in the Bible is in Acts 8, where Phillip met the Ethiopian eunuch.|
Assyrians and Ninehvites (Zephaniah 2:13)
|They are referenced in Jonah and Nahum and were a violent superpower at the time. They had ravaged Israel, and were now threatening Judah.|
What is God doing when He's referring to these nations? God's being very specific and the 5 nations are the people around the people of God. They have a history with God's people, and God is judging them based on their shared history and conflict. In Zephaniah 2:12-13, we see 2 word pictures that God uses in His judgment upon Cush and Assyria.
For Cush, God Himself is armed and ready to do battle and will act against them (Zechariah 2:12). There is a picture of an outstretched hand against Assyria (Zechariah 2:13a), invoking a similar picture in Exodus when God acted against the Egyptians. What we can see clearly from these verses is that our God is a God of action. It is so easy for us to forget this! We live in a world where we look at the injustices and it's easy to wonder if God cares or God acts. But here, we see that He himself will act. This is an encouragement for those who are seeking and yearning for His justice, but it is also terrifying because this means our sins will also be dealt with.
Zooming in, Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and God also has specific words for this city. Zephaniah 2:13b-15 describes the aftermath. There is so much destruction and the absence of humans means that the wild beasts can enter and repopulate this place. It is a complete ghost town, with a post-apocalyptic picture. It has been destroyed and desecrated, and notice the animals that are living there -- these are the unclean animals. This place will be utterly forsaken. Why? God has acted on this place. Notice that God did not act arbitrarily. The reason has also been provided in Zephaniah 2:15, that God acted against them because of their pride. They were exulting and reveling in themselves, declaring that "I am, and there is no one else." We've seen the "I am" phrase used before in Exodus 3, and this is what God says, because He is utterly independent and has no needs. Here, this nation has the audacity to declare this of themselves! What kind of a city would say that they are utterly unique and secure? Once again, we see that this was an entirely self-sufficient and prideful nation that also looked down on the nations and cities around them. They were just like the nation described in Ps 2:1-3, that sought to do life apart from God and wanted to make their own decisions. This was how they rejected God.
What does this mean for us? This shows us clearly God hates pride that rises up and declares that we have no need for Him. He hates the pride that grounds prayerlessness. He hates the pride that also declares that we have it all together, and we have no need for Him! The words of Proverbs 6:16-17 state it clearly and without a doubt that God hates pride. God hates the autonomous, self-sufficient kind of pride that was at the centre of the entire Assyrian culture. And in case we think that we are not like the people of Nineveh, let's think again. C.S. Lewis described pride as the sin of all sins:
“Pride is the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”
Why is pride so offensive to God? Pride says to God that we are God and He is not. It says that our wisdom is sufficient and His is deficient. It also says that our wisdom is better than His! How are we prideful? One often overlooked way is our attitudes towards sleep. God gave it to us because He needs rest and we do not. Yet, some of us struggle with resting and sleeping because deep down inside we think that the universe will collapse if we rest. We work and work until our bodies give way because this human-centred pridefulness runs through our hearts too! Do you struggle with pride? Let's take it a step further. Perhaps today, ask someone these questions to help you to reflect on the state of your own heart -- "Do you think I am proud? Do you find any indication of humility in my life? Do you think I have grown in humility in the last year?"
God takes pride seriously, and we should too.
(B) To the East, Moab and Ammon: Contempt for God’s people (Zephaniah 2:8-11)
God also addressed Moab and Ammon that was located to the East of Judah (Zephaniah 2:8, 10-11). Moab and Ammon opposed, reviled and taunted God's people (c.f. Num 22-24) and we are also told that God heard it ("I have heard..." Zephaniah 2:8a). Isn't this wonderful, that God knows and hears the plight of His people?
In these verses, we also learn something about why God acted. Ultimately, it is about the vindication of His own name. This means that what people do to God's people reveal what they think about God! This is best seen in Acts 8, when Saul encounters the living God. All over the Bible, from the beginning to the end, God has always set His heart on a people, and He has always wanted a people for His own possession. His people bear his name. For us, when we gather with God's people and do life, we are being the ones that God loves, and God really cares about that. If not, He would not have died. Zephaniah 2 sheds light on some of the jealousy that God has for His people, and how much He cares for them.
These verses show us that God loves us so much, not only as individuals in our personal relationships with Him, but also together as the people of God. He will guard their purity and their unity. Does this surprise you? Sometimes it is easier to think about our faith and relationship with God as a private matter, and all about God's love for me and my love for Him. But the Bible teaches us that our faith and God's love is also experienced in a community. What does this mean practically? Showing up and participating in church is important. Are you part of and committed to a local church? What do you do when you turn up for service or meet with other people from church? This does not necessarily mean we all have to serve, although that is good too. It could also simply mean praying for the church in our daily prayers, to pray that the church will be protected and defended against taunts and attempts to divide her. Do you believe that God will respond to the enemies of His bride?
God promises to act against Moab and Ammon (Zephaniah 2:9), and He will make them like Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities have become a byword for God's destruction. We know that this is true because Moab and Ammon are destroyed. They no longer exist today.
Moab and Ammon shows us that pride begins with an anti-God fist in the air, and ends up with a superior attitude towards my brother. Ps 1:1 also reminds us that pride and sins don't just snowball overnight. The wicked in Ps 1:1 is described to first walk, then stand, then sit, marking increasing levels of sin. There is a gradual development from just associating, to hanging out more actively to taking place with them. Pride never stays static but grows, and we see this here in Moab and Ammon. They've not only rebelled but also mocked and taunted God's people and God Himself.
Are you proud?
(C) To the Western Coast, Philistia: God will restore His people (Zephaniah 2:4-7)
God declares judgment on the Philistines, which are made up of 4 of the 5 cities that are closest to Judah. These are the traditional enemies of Saul and David. God assures His people that He will bring judgment in due course. The description here is violent, and this judgment will happen completely and quickly (Zephaniah 2:4-5).
Not only does God promise judgment for the enemies of His people, He also promises to restore the fortunes of the people. He promises to transform the seacoast into grazing grounds for the shepherds (Zephaniah 2:6). This space will become an area where His people can do what they have been good at doing. They shall rest in the houses of their enemies and they will now dwell in peace. This God is also mindful of them. God is preparing a place for His people. This tender God is going to make this place suitable for them, and this is His provision for His people. What an overwhelming thought that our God is so sensitive to detail and care for us so much!
The greatest challenge for believers today is believing that God loves us. This is the same struggle that we fight everyday. This is why we tell ourselves that we need to be awesome because otherwise, things will fall apart. If you believe that you have an almighty God, why will you not feel safe? Do we believe that God knows us just as we are, and that He will not stab us and judge us if we are in Christ? Today, this passage tells us that God is mindful of His people even when they are in exile, and He promises hope that He will restore their fortunes.
What does it mean that He will restore their fortunes? God promises more than just material and political possession. He will also bring about spiritual wholeness, where He will was away their sin and guilt (Jer 33:3-9). The apostles ask the same thing of the risen Jesus, asking "will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" in Acts 1:6-8. Look at Jesus' reply. God knows what He's doing and will do it in His own time. But, He also gives a command to the people. They will be the ones that will rebuild the kingdom, starting from Jerusalem and then moving out to Judea and Samaria (i.e. Moab and Ammon) and then to the ends of the earth (i.e. Assyria and Cush). Restoration is taking place when the gospel goes out into the world.
If you believe that the gospel is just an avoidance of hell and an escape from damnation, that is a 25% gospel. The gospel is that God himself went to damnation so that we can be restored and brought back to Him. If you are a Christian, this is the gospel that we take out into the world as we work and study. We have the love of the God who promises restoration and our job is not to get a degree or a paycheck, but it is to bring this news to the world that needs it. This is how God works to restore His people.
Will you respond in love and thankfulness to whatever God has been saying to you today?