B. Zephaniah preaches to us:
Zephaniah preaches to us through the fall of Jerusalem. His message is negative, and thus, it is given as a warning to God’s people throughout history that we should learn from her ways in order to avoid the judgment of God (See Rm 15:4; 1 Co 10:11). The reasons for God’s judgment of the people is outlined in one verse:
She does not obey the voice. She does not receive correction. She does not trust in the Lord. She does not draw near to her God (Zp 3:2).
These four statements of judgment are linked. In her rebellion, the people did not obey, receive, trust, and thus, draw near to God. The lack of obedience is a sign of not accepting the directions of God, and thus, one is not trusting in the Lord for guidance. And in such a state of rebellion, there is no relationship with God.
1. “She does not obey the voice.” God faithfully raised up preaching prophets in order to detour His people from leaving Him. Through the prophets, He sought to guard them from following after their own self-imposed religiosity. But they would not listen to the voice of the prophets (2 Kg 17:13). The same scenario developed again among some of God’s people about six hundred years later with the early church. Zephaniah’s contemporary audience was refusing to hear the voice of the preaching prophets, and during the time of the Hebrew writer, the same was taking place with some Jewish Christians who were refusing to hear the voice of Jesus.
God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son … (Hb 1:1,2).
Those to whom the Hebrew writer inscribed these words were considering a return to the Judaism from which they had been converted through their obedience to the gospel. They had purified their souls in obedience to the gospel (At 22:16; 1 Pt 1:22). But they were seeking to go back under a system of law where there was no remission of sins through the blood of bulls and goats (Hb 10:1-4).
Josiah restored the authority of the word of God during his reign. However, though there may be a legal restoration to the law, the people must be obedient to the law from their hearts. Since Josiah’s restoration did not continue, we learn that it takes more than restoring legal obedience to law in order to remain faithful. People’s minds and hearts must be changed when there is a true restoration. It is as James wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Js 1:22). One can hear the word of God, but if there is no obedience from the heart, then the hearing is useless.
With many in the end it will be as Jesus said, “Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21). If one is not doing the “will of My Father,” then Jesus will eventually say to that person, “Depart from Me you who practice lawlessness” (Mt 7:23). Knowledge of the word of God without obedience will lead one to destruction.
2. “She does not receive correction.” Through the prophets, God sought to correct the error of their ways. But they would not receive His instructions. Their spirit of rebellion was manifested in the fact that they wanted to create a religiosity that conformed to their own desires. When one changes the focus of his life from God to mammon, he will change his religion. He will change his religion in order that faith takes second place to that which one would consider most important in his life. This is the foundation upon which Paul made the following statement:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound teaching. But to suit their itching ears, they will surround themselves with teachers who will agree with their own desires (2 Tm 4:3).
When God’s people stop studying their Bibles, they have passed the point of repentance, for they forget that to which they must repent. A refusal to learn what God wants in our lives is an indication that we have left a desire to allow God to direct our ways. The result is the example of backslidden Israel. God subsequently judged His people destroyed because of their lack of knowledge of His word (Hs 4:6). They remained religious, but their religion was created after their own desires.
Assemblies are filled with people today who sit and listen faithfully to prophets who speak no Bible, but are highly motivational in their “ear tickling” messages. Bible preachers preach the Bible. And one is a Bible preacher only when he preaches the Bible. When one refuses to follow the Divine road map to the obedient life, then there is no hope of restoration to the right ways of God. This was the general message of the prophets to Israel who had forsaken their focus on the word of God. Backslidden Israel simply looked for preachers (prophets) who would preach what they wanted to hear.
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable … for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:16). But when one throws away his Bible, he will eventually be thrown away by God after hearing the words, “Depart from Me you who practice lawlessness” (Mt 7:23). Our primary motive for studying the word of God is to receive instruction by which we can have life. And our primary reason for hearing instruction from the word of God is to prevent ourselves from creating a religiosity that conforms to our own desires. Without instruction from God, we will lose our way, and subsequently, we will lose our salvation. No one can claim that he is following God if he is refusing to study the word of God.
3. “She does not trust in the Lord.” One shows his lack of trust in God by following after his own desires. And one knows that he is following his own desires when he has laid his Bible aside and studies it no more.
Jeremiah stated a truth in reference to man that is fundamental to this point: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jr 10:23). The arrogant and proud do not believe this statement. But we must remember that this is the way God made man. If one would seek to trust in himself in order to establish his relationship with God, then he will be disappointed. There are no self-paved roads to God. As a free-moral individual, it is simply not possible for any person to devise any means by which he can morally direct his own way to God. When the honest and sincere person realizes this, it is then that he seeks to trust in God. But one must come to the realization that he cannot find his way to God without God’s road map, the Bible.
Trust in God must also find its way into our hearts in reference to all that transpires in the environment in which we live. The psalmist explains:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth is removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea (Ps 46:1,2).
In the case of Zephaniah’s audience, the nations surrounding Judah were in chaos, and thus, the danger of the destruction of Israel was looming just over the horizon. The nation was in its final years as a nation. After the end, the people would remember all that the prophets had spoken to them over the last 150 years. But in order to delay the inevitable, it was a time when they needed to put their trust in God. Unfortunately, they put their trust in political alliances with other nations. They thought that through military power they could preserve their nation. But when God is working against a nation to bring it down, no military power will keep it from falling.
On the eve of their termination, the Israelites were putting their trust in the false pronouncements of false prophets and imagined gods. It was as Jeremiah preached in their final days:
“This is your lot, the portion of your measures from Me,” says the Lord, “because you have forgotten Me and trust in falsehood” (Jr 13:25).
The problem was that they “did not believe in God and did not trust in His salvation” (Ps 78:22). And because they did not trust in the salvation of God from all calamity, they would suffer from calamity.
4. “She does not draw near to her God.” If one does not obey the voice of God, then certainly he is not inclined to receive God’s correction. And because one is not inclined to receive the correction of the Lord, he is certainly not trusting in the Lord. The conclusion is that one is moving away from God. Israel had wandered so far away from the source of her origin that she could not find her way back. And because she could not find her way back to God, the prophets proclaimed that she no longer represented God among the nations. James possibly had their example of apostasy in mind when he wrote the following words:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners. And purify your hearts, you double-minded (Js 4:8).
5. God promises joy in the midst of judgment: Zephaniah closes his message with the sentiment that is expressed in the words of James 1:2: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” Israel was about to fall into the various trials of captivity. However, embedded in the message of despair in captivity, there was the promise of restoration over which they could rejoice.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast. And I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame. At that time I will bring you again, even in the time that I gather you. For I will give you fame and praise among all people of the earth when I return your captives before your eyes, says the Lord (Zp 3:19,30).
This was a promise that was to take them through the years of captivity. As Christians would eventually emerge from the years of Roman persecution, the captives were to remain faithful until God gathered them from the nations and restored them to the land. But as a nation of people they first had to endure tribulation, as John wrote to the early Christians: “And you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10).
Though the Israelite captives who went into captivity died in the land of their captors, their descendants would be restored to the land, and thus perpetuate the identity of Israel. They would return to reestablish Israel in Palestine in hope of the Messiah to come. Zechariah’s message of hope was directed to these descendants. The comfort that Zechariah’s immediate audience gained from his message was that their grandchildren would be restored to the land. Their captivity would not be the end of Israel.
At the time of the end of Israel in the land with the Babylonian conquest, the Israelites did not understand all the purposes behind God’s work with them. Because He did not explain all the details, they needed to trust that He was working all things together for the good of those who would believe. When their descendants returned from captivity, they would be a different people, never more following after religions of the nations that surrounded them, for the nations that surrounded them would all be gone.
[Tomorrow is Haggai.]