If you knew what tomorrow holds today, how would you live differently? This passage in Zephaniah talks about the "day of the Lord", which is a day of the LORD’s judgment on sin. What does this mean for us today, and how does this change the way we live now?
(A) The Main Actor on the Day of the LORD (Zeph 1:7-8a)
Zeph 1:7 begins with a command to "be silent before the Lord God". We usually end up being silent before people we respect, or in the presence of someone who is greater than us. It speaks of honor, reverence, and acknowledging authority and even contains an element of fear. Being silent also could mean to listen to the person that we are before. We are silent before important people like the PM, royalty, or someone wise.
The prophet also tells us specifically who the people are to be silent before -- "the Lord God" (Zeph 1:7b). Who is He? How would you describe this God? Most of us would describe Him as powerful and sovereign, one with authority. He is also one who is loving and merciful. He is both like us (e.g. his loving nature) and unlike us (e.g. his holiness) but no matter what, He is clearly "Lord", master and one with authority over all the earth. This is the LORD who (among other things):
- Created the heavens and earth, every living creature, the plants, and importantly mankind (Gen2:4).
- Makes covenant and promises his people -- Gen 8-9 (Covenant with Noah), Gen 12 (Covenant with Abraham), Ex 19-24
- Is holy, set apart, separate, and unlike any other thing/person/us (Lev 11:44)
This is the God we should be silent before! Being silent before Him, the divine creator, who makes covenant (who is personal), and unlike any other, is no surprise. It speaks clearly of His authority. The reason for this call to silence is because the day of the LORD is near (“for”). This day is coming, and since it is called the day of the LORD, it is His day, and it is all about Him. In fact, it goes on to tell us that on this day, it is the Lord who is the one doing things, and not anyone else. What sort of posture do you approach this God with? Do you see the LORD for who He is? How do you approach and read His word? This is a God before whom we are called to be silent. There is no doubting his authority, and it is helpful to think over this authority in practical terms. Which parts of your life is God exercising authority over? Do you make decisions with God in mind?
(B) The Judgment on the Day of the LORD (Zeph 1:8b-18b)
Zeph 1:10-11 speaks of crying and wailing from different places -- a cry from the Fish Gate (a northern gate in Jerusalem), a wail from the Second Quarter (newer city section north of the temple) and wailing from the inhabitants of Mortar (a hollow or valley in Jerusalem). Why? It is because the traders (Canaanites) are no more.
Zeph 1:14-16 goes on to describe the Day of the Lord as a "great day", filled with bitter sounds. The mighty man (warrior) cries, akin to God lifting his battle cry (Isa 42:13, Zep 3:17). It is a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom, clouds, thick darkness, with a trumpet blast and battle cry. This is similar to the atmosphere described in other appearances of God (C.f. Ex 19:16-19).
From both these sets of verses, we see that the mood of the day is obviously not a good one, it is a scary one where they will be crying and wailing. It sounds like people are going to suffer, there is going to fear, panic. Can you imagine that, hearing wailing? It is a war actually, which we will see in the latter verses. It is a day of wrath (anger), distress (anxiety), anguish (agony), ruin and devastation (destruction), gloom (sadness, depression), and a day of war against even the safest cities, even the best defenses. There will be no stopping this war, once the trumpet (which usually signals the start of festivals, seasons, or wars) sounds.
God is at work on this day, and this is a day of war. Does this seem surprising to you?
The verses also outline 4 groups of people that the Lord will punish.
Officials, kings’ sons, and all who array themselves in foreign attire (Zeph 1:8)
Everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud (Zeph 1:9)
The men who are complacent (Zeph 1:12)
Mankind (Zeph 1:17) and all the earth (Zeph 1:18)
The punishment is listed for the latter 2 groups. We are told that the Lord will search with lamps for the complacent men, who are also described as those who regard God as useless, as nothing, as powerless, not present, etc. Their assets which give rise to their complacency will be thoroughly destroyed and they will be futile in their work without any rewards for it.
The destruction on mankind and all the earth is also given. Distress will descend on mankind and they shall walk like the blind, where their blindness is a description of their physical and spiritual state. This is because they have sinned against the Lord, and Rom 3:23 clearly lays out the consequences of that. Their blood like dust, and flesh like dung (Zeph 1:17b), i.e. they are worthless like waste and trash. They have no deliverance from their earthly treasures and all the earth shall be consumed by the jealousy of this God (c.f. Ex 20:3).
Hence, the day of the LORD is really a day of judgment. It is important to know that prophecies can be fulfilled in different ways according to different time horizons. This is fulfilled when God judges Judah via Babylon despite seeing Israel taken into exile they did not turn back to the LORD. Later in chapter 2, we will read about the judgment of the other nations (2:4:15), and hence, we have a short-term fulfillment of the prophecy from Zephaniah, where different nations are conquered. For example, the Babylonians took over the Assyrians as the world power later on. But what does this passage mean for us today? It is not hard to see a modern equivalent of each of these 4 groups.
The first group refers to civil leadership of the people and they could be our governments, and leaders. Leaders are called to a higher level of accountability in many cases and with God’s people, the teachers of His Word are in this position (James 3:1). The passage in Zephaniah refers to those who are dressed in foreign attire probably those involved with foreign gods, cultures, and this is not entirely clear). It could easily refer to those who mixed their religions and allegiance (c.f. Zeph 1:5).
The second group could refer to people who indulge in idolatry, violence and fraud. It describes one who does not worship God! Are you quick to violence and deceit, or even having violent thoughts? Deceit and fraud can happen in many ways, such as backstabbing at work and school. Are you guilty of that?
The next group refers to people who disregard God in their daily lives. They live as if God does not exist and doesn’t do anything. These are people in Judah, we know and call upon the covenantal name of God. This applies to God’s people in the church today. Do you live a life as if God doesn't exist, leading a different life from Monday to Saturday, only to become a Christian on Sunday at church? What are you doing differently everyday because you are a Christian? Can anyone tell that you worship God, the LORD today?Are you complacent, thinking that you don’t need anything else? These series of questions should encourage us to think about this, because this is a relatable group to us today.
This last group speaks of mankind, and distress will be on all of us on this day! Sin is clearly in our world today. We read of a broken world on the news, constantly filled with reports of war, crimes and injustices. We experience a broken world in our own lives with our relationships, at home or at work or at school. The brokenness of this world can also be felt in our churches. God, being righteous, has to judge sin. Do you see yourself as a sinner? If you are, you will be stuck on this day of the Lord because you will be punished on this day! How can you live before this God?
But is this all there is to the day of the Lord? What does the New Testament say about the day of the Lord?
(C) The Hope on the Day of the LORD (Zeph 1:7, 2 Peter 3:10-13)
In 2 Peter 3:10-13, Peter also speaks of the day of the Lord. He describes the day of the Lord as coming like a thief, meaning that it will sudden and unexpected (c.f. Zep 1:18). There is an element of surprise to it. Heavens will also pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies (stars), will be destroyed. (c.f. Zep 1:18). But what is different in this description in 2 Peter is that on this Day, works that are done on it will be exposed (“will be found”, “found by God”). This is what will happen on the day of the Lord. All our works will be found by God, and there is judgment for them. And just as Zeph 1:17-18, we know that we belong to sinful mankind and we will be punished too. Most importantly, our sin will be exposed, and God being righteous will punish us for it. The thought of my works being exposed by God should make us nervous. This is not just a cuddly God. When you think of who God is, and how powerful and big He is, and that every part of evil that is in me will be found, it is a scary thought. Every evil thought, every time we sought to make our name excel over God’s etc will be found out. Remember, the Day of the LORD is not a party, but a war. It will not be fun.
Peter also goes on to tell us the response that we should have to the day of the Lord (c.f. 2 Peter 3: 11-13). We need to respond by:
- living lives of holiness (set apart), and godliness (concerned with the things of God, things that are everlasting)
- waiting and hastening the coming of the day of God. Christians are all waiting for Christ’s return, and in fact they are hurrying it. Not to say that God does not already know Christ will return (Mark 13:32), but when we are living out the lives that God is calling us to by spreading His gospel, we are hastening and building his kingdom, which will culminate in the return of Christ. How are you adding to when this day will come? Christians are told to share the gospel and this is one way you are participating in it, and hastening His return.
- waiting according to God’s promise for new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.
What promise is this? In fact, why is it that the day of the Lord is described with so much hope and eagerness in 2 Peter? This is quite different from the doom and dread of Zephaniah. Zeph 1:7 is a strange verse that speaks of guests and the sacrifice of the Lord. What exactly is going on? Gen 22:8 tells us that God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering. This is God providing for himself the sacrifice on the day of the LORD. When Christ died on the cross, we say that it is for our sin because he was a sacrifice. He is the one on whom everything you have read in Zephaniah was poured out on. When you want to imagine what Christ went through on the cross, care to read Zephaniah 1. He suffered God’s wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation on our behalf that none of that will be upon us when God finds us as we read in 2 Peter. Instead he calls us to wait faithfully for the new heavens and new earth, where our blood bought righteousness will enable us to dwell there.
The Day of the Lord is a day of judgment, but for the Christian, it is also a day of hope. How does this change the way you live today, because of this day? Will He find you faithful and loving Him when He returns, or will He find you loving something else?