1 Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,
the oppressing city!
2 She listens to no voice;
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord;
she does not draw near to her God.
3 Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning.
4 Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
they do violence to the law.
5 The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame. – Zephaniah 3:1-5 ESV
God has issued His warnings of judgment against the nations that surrounded Judah. But now He addresses His own chosen people, revealing the sorry condition of their spiritual state. And this comes immediately after His indictment of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
“This is the exultant city
that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
“I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV
God used the city to describe the state of the people who occupied it. They were characterized by pride and arrogance, viewing themselves as invincible and without equal. That magnificent city, renowned for its beauty and splendor, was filled with people who were enamored by their own power and prominence. But God warned them that they, like their city, would one day find themselves the brunt of everyone’s jokes, rather than the envy of the world.
“But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
and shake a defiant fist.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV
Yet, the great city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the former royal residence of the great King David was also in for a rude awakening. Once again, God uses the city as a proxy for the people who lived within its walls. He describes Jerusalem as “rebellious and defiled” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). In Hebrew, these two words are rich in meaning, carrying a much deeper significance that gets lost in translation.
First, God describes Jerusalem as mara’, a word that can mean “filthy” or “lifted up.” It can also convey the idea of maltreatment of another through whipping or beating. This latter definition seems more fitting because God describes Jerusalem as an “oppressing city” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). The city is defiled because it is characterized by the oppression of its own people. The Hebrew word for “defiled” is yanah, which means “to suppress” or “maltreat.” The very name of the city means “possession of peace,” and yet the description given to it by God reveals the true nature of its inhabitants. They were marked by injustice, immorality, and rebellion. And yet, God had given them clear instructions regarding the kind of behavior He expected of them.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV
The prophet Micah goes on to record God’s further indictments against the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
What shall I say about the homes of the wicked
filled with treasures gained by cheating?
What about the disgusting practice
of measuring out grain with dishonest measures?
How can I tolerate your merchants
who use dishonest scales and weights?
The rich among you have become wealthy
through extortion and violence.
Your citizens are so used to lying
that their tongues can no longer tell the truth. – Micah 6:10-12 NLT
But along with these accusations of injustice and corruption, God provides four pieces of evidence or proof of Jerusalem’s guilt and well-deserved judgment. First, He states that “She listens to no voice” (Zephaniah 3:2 ESV). In other words, she is disobedient, having refused to hear and obey the commands of God. And it is not as if God had been silent. Over the centuries, He had spoken through His prophets, calling the people of Jerusalem to repent and return to Him. But God’s people had rejected His messengers and their message. This leads to His second indictment: “she accepts no correction.”
The people of Judah had a long track record of rejecting God’s correction.
“…but they did not listen or obey. They stubbornly refused to pay attention or accept my discipline.” – Jeremiah 17:23 NLT
“My people have turned their backs on me and have refused to return. Even though I diligently taught them, they would not receive instruction or obey.” – Jeremiah 32:33 NLT
As the proverb states, “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV). But rather than accept God’s discipline, His people repeatedly rejected it, choosing to live according to their own standards, rather than His.
And this refusal to accept His loving discipline stems from a lack of trust, which God makes painfully clear: “She does not trust in the Lord.” In spite of all that God had done for them, they doubted His goodness, grace, mercy, and power. And their distrust was evidenced by their propensity to place their hope in false gods. When times got tough and they found themselves in difficulty, they would turn to nations like Egypt or Assyria to come to their aid. And their actions revealed that their God was not enough. He was insufficient to meet their needs and incapable of solving their problems.
And this lack of trust in God led the people to distance themselves from Him. Sadly, we read the sobering words, “she does not draw near to her God.” This is not simply a statement of distance or disconnectedness. It conveys their refusal to seek God’s counsel or advice. They had reached the point where they were turning to other sources for guidance. They neither desired or sought input from Yahweh. In a sense, He was out of sight, out of mind.
And this growing distance from God had led to an ever-increasing degree of godlessness among them. Zephaniah pulls no punches when describing just how bad things had gotten in the city.
“Its leaders are like roaring lions
hunting for their victims.
Its judges are like ravenous wolves at evening time,
who by dawn have left no trace of their prey.
Its prophets are arrogant liars seeking their own gain.
Its priests defile the Temple by disobeying God’s instructions.” – Zephaniah 3:3-4 NLT
Greed, avarice, and injustice were prevalent – from the halls of government to the inner recesses of the temple. Everyone was out for themselves. The rich took advantage of the poor. Judges no longer dispense justice. Prophets, posing as messengers of God, spoke lies rather than truth. All for personal gain. The city had become a cesspool of self-indulgence and selfishness.
And yet, Zephaniah provides a much-needed reminder: “The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). God has not vacated the premises. He has not yet abandoned them. He was still there, in all His glory and exhibiting all the facets of His character, including His unwavering, undiminished righteousness. So, they were without excuse.
Zephaniah contrasts God with the unrighteous inhabitants of the city, stating, “every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). There was never a day that God failed to display His righteousness and justice. Under no circumstances could they ever point a finger at God and accuse Him of being unjust or unfaithful. And His coming judgment of them would be well-deserved and fully justified. He had every right to be upset with them. He had shown them mercy time and time again. He had spared them from destruction more times than they could remember. He had put up with their ingratitude and infidelity. The only reason they still existed as a nation was because God was faithful to keep the covenant He had made with Abraham.
Their continued existence had nothing to do with them. They were undeserving of His grace and mercy. Their actions were no more righteous than those of the Cushites, Moabites, Ammonites, or Philistines. In fact, they stood before God as more guilty and deserving of His righteous indignation because they had been the beneficiaries of His unmerited favor and then had chosen to disobey His commands, reject His correction, withhold their trust, and ignore His counsel.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.