The book of Zephaniah is an obscure and often forgotten book towards the end of the minor prophets, but intermixed within its messages are passages that prompt reflection. In today’s sermonette, which dealt with a subject near and dear to my heart, the speaker quoted a verse from the book of Zephaniah, and led me to ponder on the passage and on its application to our own time and situation. As will be readily apparent, my reflections on this passage and their application are very melancholy, but such is to be expected, I suppose.
Zephaniah 2:1-3 reads: “Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, o undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the Eternal’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the Eternal’s anger comes upon you! Seek the Eternal, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice, seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Eternal’s anger.” Let us examine some of the elements of this short passage before revealing the nature of my own melancholy reflections upon this passage, so that we may understand what is being talked about and what God’s people are supposed to do about it.
It should be noted that the name Yahweh is used four times in this short three verse passage. The passage speaks to a nation in a covenantal relationship with the Eternal God, a nation whose rebellion has merited divine judgment. Before that judgment comes, the Eternal calls forth in mercy to that rebellious nation for them to gather together (presumably in obedience to His Sabbaths) in repentance for their sins before that judgment comes. Then the Eternal turns from the larger rebellious mass of His people to those honorable and faithful servants of His, calling on them to continue to seek righteousness and humility so that they may escape the judgment that is coming when God shows His righteous anger at those who continually rebel against Him.
Some people might be led to think of this escape from judgment in being hidden from His anger as being a magic deliverance from all harm and trouble. More commonly, though, God saves us through trials rather than from them. Though righteous Jews like Daniel and Jeremiah and Ezekiel were delivered from God’s wrath against their wicked people, all of them had to suffer through exile and troubles, despite the favor and protection that they were provided to do their divinely appointed mission. In such times as these God has given no prophets (at least none that I have ever heard of) any kind of obvious divine sanction, and there are a great many people who have sought such titles and positions for themselves, not realizing the hardships and problems that a godly prophet faces if one is truly following the example of genuine prophets as opposed to those false prophets who, for a while, receive a great deal of popularity and acclaim until they are shown to be liars and charlatans.
But beyond our concern with prophets, let us examine the way in which the righteous and just people are recognized by the Eternal. Zephaniah points out that the meek of of the earth (those who will eventually inherit the earth), those who have called out for justice in the midst of unjust and corrupt societies, are called to seek righteousness and humility. It is easy to call out the powers that be for corruption (not least because they are so corrupt), but to do so without arrogance, or without recognizing one’s own need for God’s mercy, is a more difficult challenge. Likewise, to passionately hate sin while passionately loving sinners and calling them to God’s grace is a difficult challenge. Were I a passionate person instead of an overly cerebral intellectual, I could imagine myself giving a call to repentance something like this:
O, my people, how long will you rebel against your Creator God? How long will you mock His laws and His ways, and consider yourself entitled to blessings while you heap up judgment against yourself through your iniquity and your hardness of heart? How long will you exploit the earth and its people, behaving with cruelty and injustice and murdering the innocent? How do you dare to shake your finger to your Creator and believe Him cruel and harsh when He has extended so much time for repentance and a mending of our ways with no response save complacency and mockery?
Do you not know that our Eternal is a loving Father, merciful and seeking to forgive? Why do you not turn your hearts to Him while He may be found? Do you think that he delights in the judgment of the wicked, or in the suffering of His people? Or do you think Him to be so impotent and so merciful that He is not just to avenge the suffering of His righteous saints when the cup of His wrath runs over? How I mourn from your fate when I reflect that God is just and that His justice will not be delayed forever? Do you not see how I weep when I see our cities ruined, our people in captivity, our pride shattered and broken in my mind’s eye? Why must you continue in rebellion despite the calamities that have already befallen our people as a result of our sins? Why do you not see in the removal of the bountiful blessings of rain in due season or protection from our enemies or the blessings of prosperity the painful realization of our short season for repentance remaining for us? Why must we add arrogant self-deception and blindness to our lengthy list of offenses against our Lord and God?
O, my people, why do you trust in your strength, seeing that it is small? Why do we trust in our prosperity, seeing as we have ruined it in extravagance and indolence and overreach? Why do we fill our loneliness and emptiness with drugs and alcohol and empty pleasures and promiscuity, looking every which way to fill the void in our hearts except for the God who lovingly formed us in the womb and who has providentially cared for our people for centuries, giving us our freedom and prosperity while we have wasted our inheritance and rejected His ways? Why must we live our lives in self-deception, pretending to ourselves and others to be righteous and self-sufficient when we know better in our hearts? Why must we live a lie or destroy ourselves in despair? Why must we live and die like fools rather than humble ourselves to seek mercy while it still may be found?