Main Idea: The judgment of God will be poured out against the whole earth because of people’s persistent disobedience.
Talk about a doomsday scenario! Zephaniah kicks off with a bang, and not in a good way. The nation of Judah was guilty of gross negligence in its relationship with God, and as a result Zephaniah warns that judgment is coming. However, this is not your typical warning of judgment. In what is arguably a more intense and extensive warning than anywhere else in Scripture, Zephaniah pleads with the nation, and specifically the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to repent of their sin and to turn back to God. In what can be viewed as one of the more depressing prophetic books, Zephaniah attempts to awaken the people to their disobedience. In an attempt to convey the seriousness of this charge, God, speaking through Zephaniah, threatens not only to judge them, but to wipe them off the face of the earth. Not only will He wipe them off the face of the earth, He makes the claim that He will wipe every living thing off the face of the earth. This is a deep and devastating warning that Judah must heed.
Like every culture and people who have been introduced to God, there is a temptation to diminish God in our minds and to live as if there are no ramifications for our behavior. The people of Judah, like many of us today, found themselves tempted by a host of good things, as we will see later in the passage. The temptation to chase after the good things, though, had caused them to abandon the best thing, namely their pursuit of God. This is not altogether different from our temptations today. In his book Counterfeit Gods Dr. Tim Keller speaks about this temptation:
The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them. (Counterfeit Gods, xiv)
In Zephaniah’s day their pursuits appeared to be such things as comfort, wealth, and political influence. Sounds a lot like our contemporary culture, does it not? While we claim allegiance to Jesus, with all that brings, we often attempt to divide our allegiance and chase other things rather than pursue Christ. In these times Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 are a reminder to us of the futility of worshipping at the feet of multiple gods: “No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money” (Matt 6:24). You and I could insert any number of good things at the end of that verse. Marriage, children, vocation, and rest are all sufficient temptations. In light of those temptations, though, we need to hear and heed Zephaniah’s warning to Judah. If we choose to jettison Christ for the pursuit of false gods, we are in danger of judgment. We must choose to follow God or not to follow Him. That choice will have eternal consequences. Like Joshua and the nation of Israel, we must choose to serve Christ, and to serve Him only:
But if it doesn’t please you to worship Yahweh, choose for yourselves today the one you will worship: the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. As for me and my family, we will worship Yahweh.(Josh 24:15)
This basic theme will resonate through the rest of the book. Before Judah are two choices. They can choose to honor God, repent of their sin, and experience His blessing, or they can persist in their disobedience and face His judgment, which could include their total destruction.
Making this judgment possible is the anger of God. While we often do not like to speak of God’s anger, we cannot study Zephaniah with integrity and not recognize that God is not just a little displeased; no, He is very angry, and His anger has very real and dangerous implications. At the conclusion of the book we will see one of the most beautiful and majestic offers of grace that can be found anywhere in Scripture—both in the Old and New Testaments—but before that offer of grace can be extended, it must be preceded by a clear depiction of God’s wrath. It is against the backdrop of God’s appropriate wrath that the grace of God is so powerfully displayed.
While the declaration of judgment in the first few verses was a bit more general, God begins to zero in, very specifically, on His own people. This, of course, would have shocked and terrified them. God says to Judah that He is ready to stretch out His hand against them. This is a specific reference to judgment. God is going to judge the people that He loves, mainly because they have begun functioning as those who are not His own. The latter part of verse 4 reveals why He is so displeased: their worship of Baal had gone unabated for too long. Not only are they worshipping Baal, but some of them have divided their loyalties between Milcom and Yahweh. Finally, we see a group who has simply rejected the Lord. They have turned their backs on Him and surrendered their allegiance. In the face of this apathy and rejection, God is prepared to act.
When we first read a passage like this, we can be challenged in our view of God. Is He some ogre who is ready to demolish us at the first sign of disobedience? Is He a judgmental overlord who feels no affection and is easily angered? The obvious answer to these questions, from the rest of the storyline of Scripture, is no. God is a God of grace and compassion. In light of that, then, how are we to understand His anger, especially toward His own people? A look to the New Testament might help. In his letter to the Romans Paul pointed out, “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8:1-2). In other words, while Christians may still sin, God’s response to their sin has changed. Specifically, God will not punitively discipline His children. The Bible is clear that God does discipline His children: “My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives” (Heb 12:5-6). However, while it is true that God disciplines His children, His discipline is corrective. God disciplines the children He loves to correct their behavior, not to punish them for bad behavior. If God were to punish believers for their sin, He would essentially be denying the cross. When Christ died on the cross, He declared, “It is finished,” sufficiently announcing to the world that the defeat of death was done. Since it is finished, you and I do not need to assume punishment. We do, however, occasionally need to have our vision and affections adjusted so that we can focus on Christ. It’s the corrective discipline that we need.
In much the same way, God’s children had abandoned Him. They had thrown themselves at the feet of false gods, and had rejected God and His grace. Still, in His anger He shows them grace by correctively disciplining them so that they will turn from their worship of idols and return to Him. So what appears to be terrifying is indeed terrifying because it’s the God of the universe, and He is angry, but it also represents great grace and even hope. Because God does not leave them to die in their sin, He is showing grace by calling them back to Himself.
In the same way, we need to understand that there will be times when God may correct us to return us to Him. Our response, then, should be recognition of His discipline, repentance toward our sin, and embrace of Jesus.
As a child, there were occasions when I would hear my mother say, “Wait until your father gets home.” I assume I’m not alone in this experience. The intent behind my mom’s declaration was to affirm the impending reckoning that would accompany his imminent coming. As a child I knew to fear that coming because it meant two things. First, it meant that I had done something wrong—something significant enough to warrant my dad’s involvement. Second, it meant that discipline was coming. Neither of these was good news for me. In a sense, this is the kind of news that Zephaniah is offering to the people of Judah. In verse 7 he refers to what is coming as the “Day of the Lord.” While that phrase might not mean much to us, it should. The Day of the Lord is a reference to the coming judgment of God. While we find it mentioned a number of times throughout Scripture, Zephaniah is more uniquely focused on it than any other biblical book.
The Israelites were guilty of disobeying God, and because of their disobedience, God was clarifying through Zephaniah that a reckoning is coming. There is no one, regardless of class, status, or birth order, who can avoid God’s judgment. This would have been difficult for Zephaniah’s hearers to understand, as those who were part of God’s chosen people might have assumed some sense of protection from God’s wrath. Instead, God puts them on notice that no one can escape the coming judgment. The intent of the declaration, as we will see at the end of the book, is not to terrify them into cowering before God. It is not to punish them for what they have done. God is not lashing out in uncontrolled anger or sadistically dispensing judgment. This reminder of the coming day of judgment was intended to provoke them to remember their place as His chosen ones and to repent and return to faithful obedience. He compels them in this manner because He understands that life is lived most fully and completely when one is living in harmony with God.
Of course, the natural response to this will either be rejection and the judgment that follows, or obedience and the pleasure of the presence of God that follows. The Day of the Lord is intended, here, to point them to the coming judgment and to compel them to return to God, but the Day of the Lord should not only be understood as a day of judgment. It should also be understood as a day of joy for those who have died to themselves and found themselves alive in Christ Jesus (Luke 9:23).
The coming judgment would be gruesome and extraordinarily devastating. This is the message that God is conveying to His people. First, he proclaims the coming Day of the Lord, in verse 7, complete with the unfortunate news that He was preparing His own people, the people of Judah, to be sacrifices, devastated by their enemies, as judgment for their disobedience. Now he takes it further by clarifying this coming judgment. Not only is judgment coming, but in verses 8-11 we learn that the coming judgment will be extensive.
Zephaniah begins with the kings and all those who live in their house. No one should have been more of a leader, both politically and spiritually, than the king and his family. Instead of setting an example, though, there was a lineage of kings who had dishonored God. This lineage of disobedient kings would now feel the full weight of God’s judgment. Not only would the kings, the leaders, feel this judgment, but the spiral continues downward now with those who serve the kings. Verse 9 calls out against those who “skip over the threshold” and who “fill their master’s house with violence and deceit.” The disturbingly sinful behavior of the kings was pervasive among their household and their servants. Verses 10 and 11, however, continue to see the spiral move downward and expand to include all the residents of the city. A resident of Judah might well have expected to see God’s judgment and anger extended to their enemies, but to see it extended to those who were the children of God would have been shocking and difficult to reconcile. However, the words of the apostle Peter, in the New Testament, are a strong reminder that no one is exempt from God’s judgment: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet 4:17).
Not only that, but those who were part of Judah were learning that there is a high accountability for those who claim the name of God and do not reflect Him in their lives. The prophet wants them to be aware that to embrace God’s name and reject God’s character is to defame the name of God. To claim to follow Him and then misrepresent Him in behavior was a travesty that must be rectified. A misrepresentation of God’s character is but one way in which we break the third commandment. It is easy to think of that command as merely a prohibition against using God’s name as a byword in conversation, without realizing that it is much more than that. The name of the Lord, and by extension His character, is to be hallowed and exalted by His children. When we misrepresent the name and character of God, we are not only guilty of engaging in a form of character assassination, we are guilty of preaching a false gospel. Further, we are left longing for more because God has designed us to find our ultimate satisfaction in Him, and our pursuit of other things, as we diminish His name and character, will always leave us lacking. This is what C. S. Lewis was trying to point out to us:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (Weight, 26)
When faced with extensive judgment, like we see in these verses, it is easy to think that God’s call to abandon our sinful pursuits and chase after Him will cost us everything, and it will. What we often fail to realize, however, is that the loss of everything pales in comparison to what we gain in return. If your life’s possessions are worth a thousand dollars, it can be debilitating to think of losing that, unless you realize that you will receive a million dollars in return. In this case you gladly abandon the thousand dollars because you will gain something much more valuable in return. The call to abandon our sin works the same way. We think our sinful life is enjoyable, we think it is fulfilling, but, like Lewis said, we are really just playing around in the mud when so much more is being offered to us.
The people of Jerusalem were widely being judged. They were in danger of losing everything. From the palace to the city gates, everyone was in the path of judgment. Yet, as painful as losing everything might have appeared to them, something much, much greater was available in return—if only they would repent and return to God in obedience.
To be an agnostic is to attempt to take no side in a spiritual conversation. An agnostic claims that we cannot know whether God exists or not. They have neither faith nor disbelief. In verses 12 and 13 we find a group of people who were essentially agnostics, and while they surely thought this spiritual position was a strong one to be in, God wanted them to understand that they, too, could not avoid His gaze and His accounting.
Having just clarified the scope of the impending judgment, Zephaniah now turns his attention on the agnostics among them. They lived their lives claiming to neither believe nor disbelieve in the presence of God. However, this lack of belief ultimately put them in the same category as those who would reject God completely. Functionally speaking, they lived for themselves, making themselves the master of their own domain. They could attempt to claim spiritual neutrality, but they were far from neutral. As a result, God would see that their destruction, too, was complete. Notice that God’s judgment for these individuals who deluded themselves into thinking that they lived in neutrality, but actually worshipped at the feet of their own comfort and pleasure, was to destroy their gods. In verse 13 Zephaniah prophesies that their houses will be destroyed and their wealth will be taken away. He says that their vineyards and the work of their hands will go to waste and never be enjoyed. God is dismantling their gods all around them.
This is ultimately God’s good work to reveal to us the lie of non-worship. We can claim not to know what is right or wrong, and we can claim not to worship, but the truth is that every person will worship, and every person will pursue what they think is right, and every one of us will be accountable for those choices that we make. In Psalm 16 King David explains the folly of chasing after other gods: “The sorrows of those who take another god for themselves will multiply; I will not pour out their drink offerings of blood, and I will not speak their names with my lips” (Ps 16:4). We may think we have rejected God, but we must understand that this will mean that God will reject us. We chase after other gods, seeking satisfaction. Instead we find ourselves drowning in sorrow. We think we are finding a god, and instead we are losing the only God.
So, how do we remedy this evil? First of all, acknowledge that there is but one God, and He is Yahweh. This is, of course, the core of the ancient Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4). This opening line of this ancient recitation reminds us that there is one God. He exists in Trinity, but He is one, and He alone is God. Those who are buried under the weight of their apathy or agnosticism must begin by acknowledging what God’s people have been confirming for years: God is.
Secondly, our acknowledgment of God must be accompanied by the sacrifice of our other gods. We must abandon those gods in our pursuit of Him. This will almost always be a challenging and difficult task. Jesus, anticipating how important this would be and how difficult it might prove, said this: “And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:47). This may sound a bit dramatic, but Jesus was making the point that this matters. If we have to take extreme measures, so be it.
Finally, radical severing of the old gods and an embrace of Yahweh runs counter to our typical expectations of lethargy toward God and spiritual activity. It is the exact opposite of that, as a matter of fact. It is spiritual energy. Many times that may be exactly what we need to walk faithfully with God.
Do you remember a time when you were a child and your mother “had enough”? As a hyperactive child, I can remember quite a few times when my impulsive behavior elicited just such a response from my mom. When mama “had enough,” I knew that there was trouble in the offing. This passage resonates with the same type of response from God, only so much worse. In a series of declarations that are among the most discouraging and accusatory in all of Scripture, God’s condemnation of His people gets more ominous. God has “had enough,” and as He levels these strong accusations against His people, He turns up the heat and begins to deliver stronger and stronger verbal blows. In what should be read like an intensifying crescendo, Zephaniah declares that wrath is coming. As the ferocity builds, so too does God’s condemnation, until it explodes with a climax in verse 18. This deafening crescendo of judgment proves its worth by crushing its hearers. While that may seem extreme, it is important to remember that God is crushing His people because He desires them to repent and return to Him. He understands that they love other things more than they love Him, so He systematically begins to eliminate the things that they love, and even their own lives, in an attempt to capture their attention and to see their affections pointed in His direction. His wrath, then, is an act of love, intended to accomplish the best for His children. I appreciate John Piper’s thoughts: “The wisdom of God has ordained a way for the love of God to deliver us from the wrath of God without compromising the justice of God” (Desiring God, 61). In this attempt to call the nation to repentance, Zephaniah emphasizes a few specific characteristic of God’s justice that are intended to heighten the nation’s awareness.
The Day of the Lord is coming, and it is coming soon. This is Zephaniah’s cry. The point is that there is no time left to wander between obedience and disobedience. The cry of the prophet is a cry to turn from their sin and return to God, and not to waste time in doing so. It is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “For He says: I heard you in an acceptable time, and I helped you in the day of salvation. Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The imminent coming of God’s judgment was intended to provoke an immediate response and to keep the nation from remaining in its present state.
Not only was God’s judgment imminent, but it would be astoundingly intense. The descriptions on display in this passage are not insignificant— the “warrior’s cry,” “trouble and distress,” “clouds of blackness,” “their blood will be poured out like dust” and so on. These are not soft or encouraging words—they are not intended to be. God’s judgment will be swift, it will be soon, and it will be complete. The pain they experienced would be insuperable.
Finally we see the source of their punishment: their sin. “Because they have sinned” Zephaniah declares that they will face this soon-coming, far-reaching judgment. Their impending destruction is their own doing, but the good news is that there is an alternative available. While their sin has kept them from God and brought them face-to-face with God’s judgment, some, if not all, of this could be averted if they would simply repent and obey.