Seeing Beyond the Darkness
Zephaniah, Trials, Tragedy
I confess that I am a person who often sees the negative side of situations. I look for potential problems and then attempt to address them. Unfortunately, this “looking for the negative” approach to life often leads a person to overlook the positive and joyful experiences of life.
This can easily happen when you read the prophets. We’ve spent several weeks in some of the “minor” (or shorter) prophetic books. The refrain of judgment is beginning to wear on me and I’d bet it is beginning to wear on you as well. I find myself longing for the God of love instead of the God of Judgment (even though I know there is only one God who is both loving and Judge). The book of Zephaniah continues this chorus of woe. Zephaniah proclaims judgment on Judah, the surrounding nations, and then on Jerusalem itself. Sounds like fun reading, doesn’t it?
In the midst of these prophetic discourses on judgment there are also rays of light. Joel talked about a coming day when the Spirit would descend on God’s people; Obadiah tells the story of God vindicating Israel after Edom took advantage of their sister nation. Jonah is a story of threatened judgment that gives way to mercy. Nahum is the account of the Israel’s defense by a Holy and Righteous God. Habakkuk is the story of God’s passionate love for His people that is willing to use any means to draw His people to His heart. And in the book of Zephaniah there are also glimmers of light and hope beyond the darkness.
Zephaniah is a prophet who wrote during the time of King Josiah’s reign. If you remember, Josiah was one of the good Kings. He came to rule at the age of 8 and at around the age of sixteen began instituting much needed spiritual reforms. We don’t know when Zephaniah wrote. Did his prophetic message contribute to the reforms? Was he writing in the midst of the reforms when he realized that these reforms were superficial rather than substantial? We don’t know. All we know about Zephaniah is what he tells us.
This morning we will look at the reasons for the judgment that will come upon Israel and the surrounding nations but we will also look at what God’s people can do in the face of judgment. We are going to search for the light beyond the darkness.
THE REASONS FOR JUDGMENT
The book of Zephaniah is a stinging book about the judgment of God. This judgment is devastating and appears to have a dual reference. In other words, it is a prediction of an immediate judgment (at the hands of the Babylonians) and a future judgment at the end of time.
Throughout the book there are many charges levied against the people of God,
- Idolatry (1:4-6) They had turned to false God’s and belief systems. We are guilty of idolatry any time something has more influence in our life than God does. That “thing” that controls us has become our idol. It may be the desire to be popular, it may be the desire for financial gain, it may be the overwhelming desire for pleasure, it may be our job, or it may be a certain group of people. Anythingthat has greater influence in our life than God is an idol.
- Violence (1:9) They were striking out at others. These people not only trusted in their superstitions rather than the Lord, they misused other people . . . they used them for their advantage. The poor were ignored, the weak were victimized, the justice was perverted.
- Deceit (1:9; 3:13). They were experts at twisting (or spinning) the truth to suit their own purposed.
- Complacency or indifference (1:12) They don’t care. They are filled with apathy and are just “going through the motions” of faith. It is a meaningless ritual that does not touch their daily living.
- Trusting in riches instead of the Lord (1:18). These people trusted their armies, their financial reserve, and their own abilities rather than trusting God.
- Corruption (3:7) Even after seeing God’s judgments the people continued to choose to rebel against the Lord by acting corruptly. Corruption in this case meant to allow decay in the morals and virtues of God. These people watered down the truth and cast off God’s standards.
Many of these charges we have seen before. What we must notice from this list is several things. First, we see the reality of judgment. There will be a time when the Lord will evaluate our lives. We may sidestep judgment for a while, but we will have to give an account for our actions. You may be engaged in behaviors you know is wrong.
- You are involved in a sexual relationship that is outside of marriage
- You are cheating an insurance company or the government through deception
- You are handing in term papers that you didn’t write
- You are defaulting on a loan even though you have the money to pay
- You are spreading lies or “half-truths” (the same difference) about another
- You are turning your head to corporate mismanagement
- You are making a living by getting other people hooked on drugs
It is possible, and even likely that you have convinced yourself that what you are doing is “O.K.” You see your behavior as the exception or the loophole in God’s standards. You have justified, rationalized, and categorized your sin so it doesn’t seem so bad. You may have convinced your friends to give their tacit approval. Zephaniah tells us God is wise to our actions. God has not softened His standards. God will not be mocked. Sin will be addressed.
Second, We see that Judgment begins with the House of God. God will judge His people. Zephaniah points to a judgment first on Israel and Jerusalem. The Bible tells us that judgment will begin with the house of God. He will discipline and awaken His followers even if He must use extreme means. If God will do this to His own people we should not doubt His willingness to judge those who ignore and spurn Him.
Third, notice the all-encompassing nature of the sin. The judgment will not just be for the “bad sins” that we tend to see in others but not in us. Notice that we will be judged for indifference, obstinacy, and turning to other gods and powers other than the Lord. I’m especially intrigued by the judgment against the indifference or complacency of the Israelites (1:12). The leaders were condemned for ignoring correction (3:2) And for their arrogance. These are not sin we usually get too worked up about. We might call them subtle sins. But they are also deadly.
Do you remember the story of the church of Laodoceia in Revelation chapter 3? The church was condemned by the Lord because they were neither hot or cold. They were lackadaisical, half-hearted, and lukewarm. God said He was going to “spit them out of His mouth.”
When examining our own lives we must look beyond what others say about us. It is not about appearances . . . it is about our hearts. If you are harboring hatred, pandering to lust, living a Christian life that is all show and no substance, God will turn His judgment toward you, just like He did against Israel.
THE LIGHT BEYOND THE DARKNESS
The book of Zephaniah is filled with references to “that day” and “at that time”. But these references not only point to judgment, they also point to a day of blessing and salvation. In the midst of His judgment, God will preserve and bless a remnant or a small portion of His people. Four times God refers to the remnant in this book. Though the Babylonians would defeat Israel, God would make sure that a group of the people survived.
In reality, this is what salvation is. It is God’s preservation of a remnant. Though we deserve God’s judgment, in love, God will turn the hearts of some, and lead us to faith in Christ. In the midst of this scathing judgment, God points us to hope. He tells us that his remnant will live in safety (3:13); they will know prosperity and fulfillment (3:20); they will worship (3:9-10); they will trust (3:12); they will experience joy (3:14); they will know God’s presence in their midst (3:17).
I think verse 15 gives us a stunning picture, “The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” Do you see what God promises?
- Forgiveness (taken away our punishment). God has extended us forgiveness and He has done it by having Christ bear the punishment that we deserve. It is an incredible message . . . . though we deserve His judgment, He offers us His mercy and forgiveness. How many people do you know who would love to be able to believe that promise? That new beginning is given in Jesus Christ.
- Love (The Lord is with us). The Lord is with us rather than against us. He promises His favor rather than his wrath, His blessing rather than a curse.
- Confidence (never again will you fear any harm). When we are forgiven and loved in this way we need fear nothing else this world can throw at us because God is on our side.
This great picture continues in the last verses of the book,
Zephaniah 3:18-20 (NIV) 18 “The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
Notice that God declares what He will do . . . not what we deserve. In the book of Revelation we read an exhausting description of the final judgment. But at the end of the book we read these words about those who have received God’s gracious gift of life through Christ,[Rev. 21: 22-27: 22:3-5]
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
3 No longer will anything be cursed. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. 4 And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever
In the midst of the judgment there is the message of hope and mercy. After the darkness God shines a glorious light. .
HOW TO GET BEYOND THE DARKNESS
So the question that remains is this: how do I become a child of blessing rather than an object of wrath? How do we get beyond the darkness? Zephaniah has some advice,
Seek the Lord (2:3)
3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger.
This seems like such simple advice. We are to seek the Lord rather than turn from Him. It is like the person who says, “How can I avoid getting a speeding ticket?” The answer is simple, “Drive the speed limit!” If you want to avoid God’s judgment stop rebelling and begin trusting.
We are told that we are to seek the Lord with humility (with an awareness that we have no right to demand anything from the Lord) and we are to do so obediently. He is not looking for us to profess faith but to possess and express it.
Wait on the Lord (3:8)
This is a familiar theme in the prophets. The people who truly believe, trust that God will do what He said He will do. We must be patient in the belief that God knows what He is doing. His purpose is flawless and His ways are perfect. The true believer trusts God. This was the message of the prophet Habakkuk. True faith means waiting for God to do what God has promised to do and to do it with the confidence that God’s timing is perfect.
Call on the Lord and Honor Him(3:9)
Ultimately, this is the final answer. In Romans 10:9,10 we are told,
9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
It’s not politically correct, but the Bible is clear that there is only “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”. [1 Tim 2:5]. In other words, our only hope is to turn in faith, humility, and trust to the One who died in our place. We must proclaim that Jesus is Lord. That is not a theological affirmation. It’s not an answer to a question, “Who is Lord?”. It is a declaration that Jesus is the King, Ruler, Lord and only hope of our life. It is a commitment.
In a wedding ceremony a man and a woman stand before the Lord and their family and friends and say, “I choose you”. It is a declaration that we will subordinate our desires and aspirations for the good of the one we are choosing. Declaring that Jesus is Lord is similar to this. We are declaring that we choose to place our confidence and hope in Him. We choose to accept His direction and influence in our life.
We must believe in our heart and not just say that God raised this Christ from the dead. Paul is careful to define who this Jesus is. He is not the Jesus of our imagination . . . but the Jesus of history. He is not the fictional Jesus of false religions, He is the One who died for our sin and was literally and bodily raised to life as a testimony of His Lordship and the sufficiency of His sacrifice. He is the one who lives, even though He died. He is the one who is the only truly God/Man. We must affirm these things and we must be willing to testify to these things publicly. There is no such thing as a private Christian.
I think we can state three simple applications from Zephaniah:
1. When Choosing Your Course in Life, Consider the long-term consequences of those choices. Better yet, consider the eternal consequences. The issue of where you stand with Jesus is the most important question of life. Are you playing at faith or have you trusted the only one who can give you new life?
2. When you are seeking to live the life that God desires, examine your heart and not just your actions. Look not only at what you are doing but at what you are leaving undone. Consider not only at how you measure up to others. . . look at how you measure up to God’s standards of obedience and holiness. The world’s standard of right and wrong and goodness will drift but God’s standard will not. We must measure ourselves by the right standard.
3. When confronted with the Obstacles of Life remember the future that awaits you as a result of God’s promise and His work on your behalf. In other words, look beyond the darkness . . . and see the light. You can see it . . . but only if you are looking for it.