Stubbornly Refusing to Repent

Jerusalem sinned grievously;
    therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
    for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
    and turns her face away.

Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
    she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

10 The enemy has stretched out his hands
    over all her precious things;
for she has seen the nations
    enter her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

11 All her people groan
    as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and see,
    for I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:8-11 ESV

The city of Jerusalem fell because the kings of Israel failed. They had failed to lead the people in faithful obedience to the revealed will of God. While there had been a handful of godly kings who reigned over Judah, the nation’s latter years had been marked by men like Ahaz.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:2-4 ESV

Virtually every one of the kings who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel had been wicked and idolatrous, leading their people to turn their backs on Yahweh and worship false gods instead. And, in time, the kings of Judah began to follow the lead of their northern counterparts, walking in the way of the kings of Israel. King Ahaz had even gone so far as to participate in child sacrifice, offering his own son as an offering to a false god.

At his death, Ahaz was succeeded by Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3 ESV). He provided Judah with a welcome respite from the sins of his father, instituting a series of reforms that reversed the years of spiritual decline and unfaithfulness fostered by Ahaz. He removed all the idols and pagan shrines his father had erected.

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him… – 2 Kings 18:4-5 ESV

But sadly, Hezekiah’s reign eventually came to an end, and he was followed by his 12-year-old son Manasseh, who quickly reversed all his father’s reforms.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:2-6 ESV

And the pattern continued, with Manasseh’s son, Amon, following in his immoral footsteps.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

Amazingly, the downward trend was broken once again by Josiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 ESV). Josiah instituted a series of sweeping reforms intended to restore the nation’s allegiance to God. He repaired the long-neglected temple of God. He reinstituted the observance of the Mosaic law. He defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:13-14 ESV).

But Josiah, for all his good intentions, was unsuccessful in changing the hearts of his people. And when his sons eventually ascended to the throne, the each “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:37 ESV). Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin each had their opportunity to rule over Judah, but each failed to restore the hearts of the people to a right relationship with God. The pattern of spiritual adultery continued as the Babylonians stood poised to bring the judgment of God against His unfaithful people. And eventually, just as God had warned, the nation of Judah fell to the king of Babylon.

And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.  – 2 Kings 24:11-14 ESV

Jerusalem had “sinned grievously” (Lamentations 1:8 ESV). And Jeremiah describes in somber tones the consequences of her sin.

The enemy has plundered her completely,
    taking every precious thing she owns.
She has seen foreigners violate her sacred Temple,
    the place the Lord had forbidden them to enter. – Lamentations 1:10 NLT

The very temple that Manasseh had filled with altars “for all the host of heaven” had been filled with Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, who pillaged the sacred site of all its gold, jewels, fabric, and sacred furniture.

The entire city had been left in ruins, its buildings and homes burned, its gates destroyed, and its walls full of gaping holes through which the Babylonians had entered the city. And the few who were not taken into captivity to Babylon were appalled and ashamed at the sorry state of the once-grand capital of their nation.

All who once honored her now despise her,
    for they have seen her stripped naked and humiliated. – Lamentations 1:8 NLT

And Jeremiah pulls no punches when describing the cause of Judah’s downfall.

She defiled herself with immorality
    and gave no thought to her future. – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

In the book that bears his name, Jeremiah records God’s indictment against His chosen people.

“You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 3:2 ESV

When the inevitable happened and the judgment of God came, the people had displayed surprise and dismay. They even called out to God, begging Him to rescue them from their predicament.

Now she lies in the gutter
    with no one to lift her out.
Lord, see my misery,” she cries.
    “The enemy has triumphed.” – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

Her people groan as they search for bread.
    They have sold their treasures for food to stay alive.
“O Lord, look,” she mourns,
    “and see how I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:11 NLT

But it was too little, too late. God had given them ample opportunity to reform their ways. He had given them godly kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who had attempted to reform the hearts of the people and restore their commitment to Him. But the people had proven to be stubborn and committed to remaining unfaithful to God. Now they were suffering the consequences of their sins. But rather than acknowledge their guilt and humbly confess their sin to God, they remained stubbornly defiant. They were quick to inform God about how bad things were in Judah but unwilling to admit how badly they had sinned against Him.

But all the way back at the dedication of the temple Solomon had built for Him, God had told His people the key to getting HIs attention and to enjoying their restoration to a right relationship with Him.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”  – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Free to Choose

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
    they have become her enemies.

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
    and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
    but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
    in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3 ESV

Like the book of Job, Lamentations deals with the theology of suffering, but from a national, rather than a personal perspective. Written as poetry, Lamentations is a dirge, a song of mourning commemorating the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah. But the book is far more than a reciting of the sad state of affairs in Judah. It is a theological treatise on God’s justice, love, and sovereignty.

The seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are on display throughout the pages of Lamentations, and they are never fully resolved. Even at the close of the book, the unavoidable and inexplicable tension between these two truths remains.

The people of Israel had been given a choice by God. He had made a bilateral covenant with them that spelled out His expectations regarding their behavior. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they chose to disobey, the would experience the consequences, in the form of curses. The blessings and the curses had been covered in detail in the book of Deuteronomy.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

The choice had been theirs. But God had made sure that the logical choice would be a clear and compelling one. There should have been no confusion or debate. God had promised that obedience to His commands would be accompanied by the benefit of His blessings on their cities, fields, flocks, agriculture, families, military exploits, business ventures, physical health, and financial prospects. They would enjoy status as “a people holy to himself” (Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV). And God assured them that this unique distinction would be accompanied by some significant implications:

all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 NLT

But what if they chose to disobey God? What would happen then? God had made that outcome painfully clear. Everything He had promised to bless would be cursed.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Their crops, cities, families, flocks, and fortunes would be cursed because God would remove His hand of protection and provision. If they chose to live in ways that were contrary and contradictory to God’s plans for His chosen people, they would experience the dire consequences. But again, the choice had been theirs to make. And we know from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, that they ultimately chose to live in disobedience to God. They proved unfaithful to Him, regularly rejecting His will for their own. And while God had warned them repeatedly that destruction was coming unless they repented and returned to Him, they rejected the words of the prophets and followed the desires of their hearts.

A pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness marked the history of God’s people. And it eventually resulted in the split of the kingdom, resulting in the nation of Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south. And in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians just as God had warned. And while the southern kingdom of Judah had watched the fall of its northern neighbor, they learned nothing from the experience. Because in 586 B.C., they would experience a similar fate, conquered by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

And here, in the opening verses of Lamentations, we read the somber words describing the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the once flourishing capital of Judah. Jeremiah describes the city as a veritable ghost town. Its once-bustling streets are empty, its houses and buildings destroyed. The former glory of the temple has been reduced to rubble and the gates and walls of the city have been demolished. The book of 2 Kings describes the extent of the devastation.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem.  And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. – 2 Kings 25:8-12 ESV

Jeremiah describes the fallen city of Jerusalem as a princess who has fallen on hard times. Formerly married and accustomed to great wealth and privilege, she finds herself widowed and reduced to a state of abject poverty. Her fortunes have been drastically and dramatically altered. Having formerly enjoyed the benefits of royal sovereignty, she is now reduced to a state of slavery.

But while her fate may leave us feeling sorry for her, it is not undeserved. Jeremiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife. She cries but finds no one to comfort her, in spite of her long list of lovers. Those whom she once considered her friends have ended up abandoning and turning against her. And in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah had warned Judah that all of this was going to happen, long before it did.

And you, Zion, city doomed to destruction,
you accomplish nothing by wearing a beautiful dress,
decking yourself out in jewels of gold,
and putting on eye shadow!
You are making yourself beautiful for nothing.
Your lovers spurn you.
They want to kill you. – Jeremiah 4:30 NET

Judah had made a habit of making alliances with other nations, seeking safety and security through treaties and military pacts, rather than trusting in God. When God had warned that the Babylonians were coming, the leaders of Judah had sought to stay off destruction through partnerships with pagan nations that were in direct violation of God’s will. But these “friends” would prove unfaithful and incapable of delivering Judah from the hands of the Babylonians.

Verse three paints a stark contrast between God’s preferred future for Judah and the reality of their current circumstances. As God’s chosen people, they had been given the land of Canaan as their inheritance. It was a rich and abundant land, filled with tangible expressions of God’s love in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of grain, and abundant sources of water. They had lived in homes they had not built located in cities they had not constructed. They had enjoyed safety and security from their enemies provided by the hand of God. But now, Judah had “been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery” (Lamentations 1:3 NLT).

Instead of enjoying the peace and rest of the promised land, the people of God were experiencing the pain and suffering of exile in the land of Babylon. God had promised them that if they would only remain faithful to Him, He would ensure that they remained at the top of the food chain.

“…the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom.“ – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT

But Jeremiah reveals that their choice to disobey God had produced a far different outcome.

She lives among foreign nations
    and has no place of rest.
Her enemies have chased her down,
    and she has nowhere to turn. – Lamentations 1:3 NLT

The people of Judah had made a choice, and now there were reaping the consequences of that choice. God had warned them, but they had refused to listen. He had pleaded with them repeatedly to repent, but they had rejected those calls. They had not acted out of ignorance, but out of pride and stubbornness. They had chosen to live according to their own ways, living in keeping with their own selfish agendas. And now, they were experiencing the error of their ways.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Bright Hope For Dark Days

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave. – Lamentations 1:1 ESV

As of midnight last night, my community is under a “shelter-in-place” order mandated by the local authorities. It is just the latest in a long list of changes to our way of life. And it is likely that there will be more to come. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, that is radically altering life as we know it.

This unprecedented worldwide catastrophe has impacted the health of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, with the current number of cases reaching the half-million mark. And sadly, as of this writing, there have been in excess of 20,000 deaths as a result of this deadly disease.

On top of the devastating toll it is taking on human life, COVI-D-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy, shutting down countless businesses both large and small, putting millions of people out of work and without sources of income. It would be an understatement to say that these are difficult days.

So, as I was preparing to begin a new Devotionary, I was drawn to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Sadly, the unfortunate title given to this book has kept many people from ever digging into its rich and rewarding content. Yes, the name is a bit depressing, but as the old saying goes, “There’s more to a book than its cover.”

The title “Lamentations” was given to the book long after it was written and actually comes from the Hebrew Talmud. The Hebrew Bible provided the book with a different, but no less depressing title: “Ah, how” or “Alas” (Heb. ‘ekah). It comes from the first word in the first, second, and fourth chapters.

There is no clear consensus as to the book’s author, but tradition has usually pointed to Jeremiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, opens the book of Lamentations with the following preface: “And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.”

The content of the book focuses on the immediate aftermath of the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. As God had warned repeatedly through His prophets, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had destroyed the nation of Judah and its capital city, taking captive tens of thousands of its people and leaving a destroyed economy, a ravaged landscape, and an emotionally devastated people behind.

For centuries, after the book was written, the people of Israel would read its content as part of an annual fast day recalled Jerusalem’s destruction. It was intended to be a much-needed reminder to future generations of Israelites that unfaithfulness was unacceptable to God. The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had been the result of their ancestors’ disobedience and disloyalty to God. But the book also chronicles God’s remarkable faithfulness. Despite the failure of God’s chosen covenant-people to remain faithful to Him, He would refuse to abandon them completely.

The message contained in Lamentations, while directed at the nation of Judah, has lasting implications and timeless lessons that remain applicable for the people of God in all ages. Charles Swindoll describes the book’s relevance for anyone who would consider themselves a child of God.

“It [Lamentations] is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ coin.” – Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah

This book reveals the God-ordained ramifications of a life of disobedience. The fate of the people of Judah was directly tied to their refusal to keep their covenant commitment to God. Long before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, God had warned the people of Judah what would happen as a result of the unfaithfulness to Him.

“The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.” – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 ESV

And God had left them with no doubt as to the cause of their future suffering.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.  – Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

Centuries later, the apostle Paul would pick up on the basic theme of this book when he wrote to the believers in Galatia.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Galatians 6:7-8 ESV

Simply put, sin has consequences. That is the message of Numbers 32:23: “be sure your sin will find you out.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not insinuating that the COVID-19 virus is the punishment of God on the sins of mankind. I am not trying to make a correlation between the destruction of Jerusalem and the current state of affairs in America. All I want to do is allow this Spirit-inspired book to remind each of us that our God is faithful. Even in the midst of the worst circumstances, our God is loving, gracious, kind, merciful, and all-powerful. He does not abandon His own.

I am reminded of the words David wrote in the 23rd Psalm.

Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 NLT

These are dark days. We are walking (six-feet apart) in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but our God is by our side. Of all people, we should be able to rest and rejoice in the faithfulness of our God. We should find comfort in His consistency. We should find hope in His heart of compassion and mercy. The truly remarkable thing about the book of Lamentations is that while it vividly portrays Judah’s suffering, it also revels in the goodness of God.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV

What could God be trying to teach us during these difficult days? In what ways could He be trying to get our attention in order to remind us that His love is steadfast, His mercies are never-ending, and His faithfulness is great? The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Will we choose to believe this great truth about our God, even when the circumstances of life seem to call it into question? That is the message of Lamentation.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Heart of the Issue

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) – Philemon 1:8-11 ESV

Bringing up a difficult topic with someone you care about can be tricky. An attempt to point out someone else’s faults, failures, or blind spots, even if done with the best of intentions, can turn out poorly. Confrontation is risky. That’s why, more often than not, most of us choose to avoid the conflict altogether. But Paul loved Philemon too much to remain silent. And he knew that this particular issue had far greater implications than just the relationship between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.

For Paul, this was all about the body of Christ. Yes, he had strong affections for the two men mired in the middle of this situation, but he also had a heart for the spiritual well-being of the church. The relationships between believers within the local body of Christ were vital to the spread of the Gospel because they were evidence of its life-transformative power. There was no place for division or disunity among believers, a message he communicated to the church in Corinth.

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

So, as Paul prepared to bring up a potentially controversial issue with Philemon, he had the greater good of the body of Christ in mind. He knew that Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus would have a ripple effect on the church. Because of his leadership role in the church, Philemon was admired by its members and his actions carried great influence.

It’s essential that we understand the nature of the problem that Paul was about to address with his friend. Philemon was a believer but also a slaveholder. This was not uncommon in those days. In fact, it was quite normal because slavery was a vital part of the Roman economy. In the early days of the church, as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire, people from all walks of life were coming to faith in Christ, including slaves. The message of faith in Jesus was non-discriminatory. It was not reserved for the rich or religious, the upper class or the highly educated. As Paul pointed out to the believers in Corinth, the Gospel was for the foolish, the powerless, and the despised.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

It would appear that Philemon was a relatively wealthy individual, with a home large enough to host the local fellowship of believers. He also had the financial resources to purchase bondslaves. But, while Philemon was well-resourced, he had not been purchased his salvation. It had been a gift, a point that Peter makes perfectly clear.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

But Philemon, like every other individual who had come to faith in Christ, was having to deal with the impact of the Gospel message on his daily life. He was a Christ-follower, but he also remained a businessman with financial obligations. He was also a citizen of the Roman Empire with certain legal rights and responsibilities. And as a slaveholder who had recently suffered a financial loss when one of his slaves had run away, he would have known his rights concerning redress and legal recourse.

But little did Philemon know that his runaway slave had just happened to run into his friend, the apostle Paul. One of the things I love about this story is the way it so subtly portrays the sovereign will of God. The last thing Philemon expected to hear from Paul was an update on his runaway slave. And yet, here was Paul getting ready to announce the news that, not only did he know Onesimus, he considered him his child in the faith. Philemon’s runaway slave had become a fellow follower of Christ and a personal friend of Paul’s, ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome. What a bizarre turn of events. And one can only imagine the look on Philemon’s face as he read this surprising news from Paul.

But don’t miss the sovereign hand of God in all of this. At some point, Philemon had made the conscious decision to purchase Philemon as a slave. It had been a fully legal transaction based on sound financial planning. But then, somewhere along the way, Onesimus had come up with a plan of his own. He ran away. He had taken the risk of seeking his freedom, knowing that, if caught, he would face severe punishment or even death. And hundreds of miles away, Paul had made a plea to have his case tried before the emperor in Rome, where he was then taken and placed under house arrest.

Each of these decisions was made by a man, but as the book of Proverbs points out, their plans were orchestrated by God. He was operating behind the scenes in ways they could not see or know.

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail. – Proverbs 19:21 NLT

We have no details concerning how Onesimus met Paul. But he did. And we can rest in the knowledge that God was directing the steps of this young runaway slave so that his path would cross that of Paul’s. God had fully intended for the slave of Philemon to encounter the prisoner of Nero. And the life of Onesimus would never be the same. But Philemon’s life was also about to undergo a radical realignment as Paul presented him with a paradigm-shifting request.

As an apostle, Paul knew that he had the authority to force Philemon to do the right thing. But instead, he appealed to Philemon’s heart. Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love, not out of obligation or duty. So, he let Philemon know that it was “for love’s sake” that he was making his request. Paul knew that love would be the only thing that could heal the broken relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. It was going to take a miracle for this slaveholder to forgive his former slave. But for Paul, forgiveness was not going to be enough. He was out to change the relationship between these two men in ways that neither one of them could imagine.

Paul makes an interesting side comment to Philemon, stating that Onesimus “was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is achrēstos, which means “unprofitable.” It’s not exactly clear what Paul in inferring by this statement, but he could simply be implying that, as long as Onesimus was on the run, he had been no use to Philemon. But his absence had proved extremely beneficial to Paul. This young man had been ministering to Paul during his house arrest. But I think there is a more significant meaning behind Paul’s use of this term. As a slave, Onesimus had been little more than property to Philemon. His value was based solely on the work he did for Philemon or the price he could bring at auction.

But now, as a brother in Christ, Onesimus was a valuable member of the faith community and an asset to the Kingdom of Christ. At one time, Philemon had considered Onesimus to be foolish, powerless, and despised. But Christ had changed all that. Now, Onesimus was a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. He was a valuable and valued member of the body of Christ. He had gifts to share and a part to play in the ongoing spread of the Gospel.

Paul wanted Philemon to view his former slave through the lens of the Gospel. God was going to use Onesimus, someone the world once “counted as nothing at all…to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Corinthians 1:28 NLT). In the world in which Philemon lived, slavery was an important part of his livelihood. It was a powerful force in the local economy. It was a common practice that few questioned and virtually all had learned to accept as the status quo. But Jesus had come to replace man’s ways with God’s ways. The Gospel was meant to be a game-changer, shining the light of God’s love into the darkness of a fallen world.

And Philemon was about to have the light of God’s truth illuminate the recesses of his own heart, revealing yet one more hidden area of sin that needed to be exposed and expelled by the love of Christ.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Our Righteously Wrathful God – Part II

For the Lord holds a cup in his hand
    that is full of foaming wine mixed with spices.
He pours out the wine in judgment,
    and all the wicked must drink it,
    draining it to the dregs.
 
– Psalm 75:8 NLT

28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”Matthew 10:28 NLT

5 “But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” – Luke 12:5 NLT

So you see, the Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while keeping the wicked under punishment until the day of final judgment. – 2 Peter 2:9 NLT

Discussing the wrath of God can come across as if we are dealing with a flaw in the divine character. It seems out of step with His love, grace, and mercy. But the wrath of God is never displayed in an arbitrary manner. He need never apologize for it or be embarrassed because of it. And His never unleashes His wrath undeservedly or unjustly. Unlike us, God never loses His temper. He never flies off the handle or suffers from a lack of self-control. He is always purposeful when displaying His wrath against sinful mankind. When doing so, He is displaying who He is, displaying His divine nature and bringing glory to Himself. In fact, God’s wrath is inseparably linked with His glory. When He exercises His wrath, He is revealing the fulness of His glory.

The book of Exodus records the encounter that Moses had with God on Mount Sinai. Moses, the deliverer God had chosen to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, made a bold request of God. He asked the Almighty, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18 ESV). God agreed to do so, but with one condition.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord…But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” – Exodus 33:19, 20 ESV

God warned Moses that viewing His face would prove deadly. Why? Because of Moses’ sinfulness. No man can behold the full, unveiled glory of God while in his sinful state. Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but to do so without God’s protection would result in Moses’ destruction. Because the wrath of God goes hand-in-hand with the glory of God.

God kept His word, but in a display of His goodness and mercy, He prevented Moses from seeing Him in all His glory.

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:22-23 ESV

Moses, as a fallen human being, deserved to come under the wrath of God but, instead, he experienced God’s grace and mercy. Remember what God had said to Moses immediately after making his request:

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

God, because of His righteousness and holiness, is obligated to punish sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. But He can make provision for it. And, in this case, that is what He did.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

As God passed, with His hand placed protectively over His servant, He proclaimed His mercy and grace, His patience and steadfast love, His faithfulness, and forgiveness. In other words, He declared His divine attributes. But don’t miss this part. While God declared that He is willing to forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, He will NOT clear the guilty. The Hebrew word translated as “clear” is naqah and it means to “acquit” or ”to leave unpunished.” The guilty must be held to account. They must pay for their sins. God cannot simply whitewash over them.

Just before Moses had been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the glory of God, he had been given the law of God – the Ten Commandments – on tablets of stone. And Moses had returned from the mountaintop, tablets in hand, only to find the people worshiping false gods down in the valley. In his shock and anger, Moses had destroyed the tablets containing God’s law. And God, in His wrath, brought a plague on the people, punishing them for their rejection of Him and their rebellion against Him.

…the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. – Exodus 32:33-35 ESV

God punished the guilty. He could not and would not allow them to get away with their sin. The entire law, as prescribed by God on Mount Sinai, was based on the premise “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). There were those who would die by the plague that God had sent. Their deaths would assuage or propitiate God’s wrath. He had to punish the guilty. He could not simply clear or acquit them.

God gave Moses a second set of tablets, containing His code of conduct for the people of Israel. His laws were intended to set them apart as His chosen people. In them were contained all they needed to know about living life as His children. He left nothing up to their imaginations. They would not be free to live on their own terms or to follow the examples of the other nations around them. But Moses, knowing the hearts of his people, made yet another request of God.

“If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” – Exodus 34:9 ESV

Moses knew that, without God’s grace and mercy, the people of Israel would find themselves the fully deserving recipients of God’s wrath, once again. So, God renewed His covenant commitment with the people of Israel, but He warned them:

“…for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” – Exodus 34:14 ESV

God will not tolerate unfaithfulness. He will not put up with His creation turning their backs on Him by worshiping something or someone other than Him. But it is not because He is overly sensitive or wears His feelings on His sleeve. It is because He is God and worthy of all glory, honor, and praise.

In the book of Revelation, John records his vision of the throne room of God in heaven. He describes the four living creatures, standing around the throne of God:

Day after day and night after night they keep on saying,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—
    the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” – Revelation 4:8 NLT

And they are joined by the 24 elders, who lay their crowns before God’s throne and say:

“You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” – Revelation 4:11

God is worthy of our praise. He deserves our worship. He created us. We exist for His glory. And when we refuse to give Him the glory He deserves, we sin against Him. Sin is not so much the action we commit, as it is the heart behind the action. What we do is an outward display of the state of our hearts. Jesus said that “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). Then He added, “These are what defile you” (Matthew 15:20 NLT). The Greek word for “defile” is koinoō and it means “to make common or unclean.”

Our actions, which stem from our hearts, end up making us unacceptable to God. They display our love for something other than Him. When we sin, we are giving evidence that our hearts do not belong to God. We love something other than God. Such as pleasure, sensuality, self, success, power, position, prominence, or happiness. Those things become idols or substitutes for God. And our sin is an expression of our love affair with these false gods.

But God’s holiness demands justice. And His justice requires that He display His wrath “against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NLT). Yet, in His mercy and grace, God came up with a way to satisfy His wrath and display His goodness at the same time. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission or forgiveness of sin. And since all men have sinned, all men deserve to fall under the wrath of God. But Paul reminds us of the amazing grace of God as displayed through the gift of His Son.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 NLT

God satisfied His own wrath by sending His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt. He gave His sinless Son as the atonement for sinful men.

God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. – Romans 4:25 NLT

But to escape the wrath of God, sinful men and women must accept the free gift of God’s sacrifice on their behalf. They must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. The payment has been made. The gift has been offered. But it must be accepted. Paul goes on to state: “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22 NLT). And a few chapters later, he adds: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NLT).

The wrath of God is real. But so is His grace and mercy. God is a just God who must punish sin. But He is also a gracious God who has provided a way that He might justify the ungodly. All for our good and His glory.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Hope of Things to Come

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
    my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
    shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
    your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
    in my holy mountain.
12 But I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
    and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
    a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
    and none shall make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:9-13 ESV

In 1719, the hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” was published by Isaac Watts as part of a collection entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The opening words of this classic anthem to God’s glory read:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

This heartfelt declaration of God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of His people provides a perfect segue to this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy. After warning the people of Judah of God’s pending judgment and declaring God’s future plans for the destruction of sinful mankind, Zephaniah reminds the citizens of Jerusalem that their God is not yet done.

While the judgment of Judah and the nations of the world was inevitable and inescapable, the people of God were to maintain hope in their merciful and always faithful God.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s gracious, hope-inducing plans for His people.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”– Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV

While God was going to discipline His people for their rebellious behavior and their repeated refusal to repent of their sins, He would not completely forsake or forget them. The day was coming when a remnant of His people would return to Him with repentant hearts, fully forgiven for their past indiscretions.

On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me – Zephaniah 3:11 ESV

But the repentant Jews will not be alone. Zephaniah reveals that another remnant, made up of people from among the nations of the earth will also turn to God, accepting the gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness through His Son. The apostle John recorded his vision of this great throng of redeemed people, standing before the throne of God Almighty.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

While Zephaniah’s warnings of judgment and God’s promises to completely eradicate mankind may leave us wrestling with feelings of uncertainty and confusion, we must not overlook God’s promises of redemption for a remnant of sin-plagued and rebellion-prone humanity.

There were dark days ahead for the people of God and the majority of mankind will one day stand before God, justly condemned and fully deserving of their punishment. But the future will not be all doom and gloom. Notice the silver lining that accompanies the dark cloud of Zephaniah’s prophecy:

“Then I will purify the speech of all people,
    so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
    will come to present their offerings.” – Zephaniah 3:9-10 NLT

The future is actually quite bright. The sovereign God of the universe has a plan that will involve the return of His Son, the defeat of Satan, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and the judgment of the unbelieving world. But there will a remnant on earth, made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue, who will joyfully and gratefully worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

God describes a scene of unprecedented peace and tranquility. The days marked by godlessness and faithlessness will be no more.

“Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
    for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;
    they will never tell lies or deceive one another.
They will eat and sleep in safety,
    and no one will make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:12-13 NLT

Jesus provided a description of how this elimination of the godless and faithless will take place.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46 ESV

Obviously, this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be. That is why it was intended to bring hope to the people of Judah, even though they would not live to see it come to pass. God was attempting to give them the big picture view of His redemptive plan. And that plan is not relegated to one generation or nation. It spans the centuries, moving from the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way to the Second Coming and the recreation of the earth.

Long ago, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” – Isaiah 65:17 ESV

And God promised the people of Israel that this new heaven and new earth would be permanent in nature, reflecting His permanent commitment to them as His chosen people.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.” – Isaiah 66:22 ESV

And as John reveals in the book of Revelation, the end of the age will be accompanied by this newly created heaven and earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. – Revelation 21:1 ESV

God is going to make all things new. He will restore His creation to its former glory and remove all vestiges of sin. Death will be no more. Wickedness will have no place in God’s creation. The righteous will live in unbroken fellowship with the Holy Trinity and the influence of Satan will be permanently eradicated from the face of the earth.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:5-8 ESV

In the meantime, the people of God are to have hope. Despite what may be happening to them or around them, they are never to lose sight of God’s divine plan of redemption. He is not done. There is reason to hope. Because He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to fulfill His promises. And while the future remains out of sight and out of our control. we can have faith in the faithfulness of God. This is why the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).

And may the words of Isaac Watts ring in our ears as we wait for God to fulfill His perfect plan.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

Wait For Me

“I have cut off nations;
    their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
    so that no one walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
    without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely you will fear me;
    you will accept correction.
Then your dwelling would not be cut off
    according to all that I have appointed against you.’
But all the more they were eager
    to make all their deeds corrupt.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed. – Zephaniah 3:6-8 ESV

At the time when Zephaniah penned the words of his prophecy from the city of Jerusalem, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been defeated by the Assyrians and its people had been taken captive. Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had been destroyed. The initial conquest of Israel had begun in 740 BC, and 20 years later it culminated with the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians under King Shalmaneser V, but only after a three-year-long siege of the city.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

And Shalmaneser V repopulated the northern kingdom with a vast array of people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds.

The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. – 2 Kings 17:24 NLT

And the people who occupied the southern kingdom of Judah had watched all of this happen. And the unstoppable Assyrian war machine had left a long line of defeated nations in its wake. They had even marched as far south as Judah where, in the year 701 BC they attempted to add Jerusalem to its growing list of victories. But God had intervened on Judah’s behalf.

Then King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to God in heaven. And the Lord sent an angel who destroyed the Assyrian army with all its commanders and officers. So Sennacherib was forced to return home in disgrace to his own land. And when he entered the temple of his god, some of his own sons killed him there with a sword.

That is how the Lord rescued Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from King Sennacherib of Assyria and from all the others who threatened them. So there was peace throughout the land. – 2 Chronicles 32:20-22 NLT

But by the time Zephaniah wrote the book that bears his name, it had been years since the people of Judah had witnessed the saving work of God. King Hezekiah had died and replaced by his son Manasseh of whom it was said, “He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, following the detestable practices of the pagan nations that the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He rebuilt the pagan shrines his father, Hezekiah, had broken down. He constructed altars for the images of Baal and set up Asherah poles. He also bowed before all the powers of the heavens and worshiped them” (2 Chronicles 33:2-3 NLT).

At his death, Manasseh was replaced by his son, Amon. And his reign was marked by increasing apostasy.

He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, just as his father, Manasseh, had done. He worshiped and sacrificed to all the idols his father had made. But unlike his father, he did not humble himself before the Lord. Instead, Amon sinned even more. – 2 Chronicles 33:22-23 NLT

And Amon’s successor was his 8-year-old son, Josiah, whom the Scriptures paint in a far different light.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight and followed the example of his ancestor David. He did not turn away from doing what was right. – 2 Chronicles 34:2 NLT

Josiah was a reformer. He attempted to restore Judah’s relationship with and dependence upon God. And while his efforts were well-intentioned and heartfelt, they did little to change the spiritual state of Judah’s inhabitants. That is why Zephaniah is having to deliver the words of this prophecy to God’s chosen, yet stubborn people.

This entire book was intended as a wake-up call for the people of Judah. God was reminding them of His unwavering expectation that they obey Him. He had created them for His glory. They were meant to shine as lights in the darkness of the pagan world, revealing how sinful men could live in communion with a holy God. But they had failed. Rather than remain faithful to God and live according to His righteous law, they had chosen to emulate the nations around them. They had compromised their convictions and accommodated their beliefs to such a degree that it was difficult to discern any meaningful difference between themselves and the nations that surrounded them.

And God reminded them that these nations with whom they had chosen to associate and whose practices they had determined to assimilate, had all been the victims of His divine judgment.

“I have wiped out many nations,
    devastating their fortress walls and towers.
Their streets are now deserted;
    their cities lie in silent ruin.
There are no survivors—
    none at all.” – Zephaniah 3:6 NLT

Judah had to look no further than the borders of Israel to the north. Their cities were in ruins. And the once-prolific Jewish population had been supplanted by foreigners. Their towns, villages, and homes were occupied by people from other countries, and what few Jews remained in the land had intermarried with these invaders, creating a new mixed-race population that would later be referred to with the pejorative term, “Samaritans.”

But in spite of all that had happened around them, the people of Judah remained unrepentant and blissfully oblivious to God’s gracious intentions.

“Surely they will have reverence for me now!
    Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
    destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
    to continue their evil deeds.” – Zephaniah 3:7 NLT

Even Zephaniah’s warnings would fall on deaf ears. But what the people of Judah failed to understand was that God would not tolerate their behavior forever. He had given them ample warning. He had repeatedly sent His prophets to call His stubborn people to repentance. And He had shown them just how harsh His judgment could be by pouring out His wrath on the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had been descendants of Abraham. Their land had been part of the inheritance promised to the patriarchs and allocated to the various tribes of Israel. But now, ten of those tribes were all but destroyed and their land was occupied by foreign invaders.

Yet, the people of Judah still held onto the false hope that their status as God’s chosen people would act as an inoculation from further harm. They believed themselves to be immune from judgment because they belonged to God. But they were mistaken.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed.” – Zephaniah 3:8 ESV

God was going to bring His judgment. And in this verse, Zephaniah records the full extent of that coming judgment: “all the earth shall be consumed.”

Zephaniah had opened his prophecy with the very same warning from God.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:2-3 ESV

The people of Judah were not to have a false sense of security. If God was willing to destroy all mankind from the face of the earth, what right did they have to think they were exempt?

It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize that this prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. God has not yet cut off mankind from the face of the earth. But God did bring judgment upon Judah. It took place when He called the nation of Babylon and used them as His chosen instrument to bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the southern kingdom. For 70 years, the land of Judah would lay in a state of suspended animation, its cities and villages unoccupied, its fields untilled and its orchards untended. The once-great city of Jerusalem would be a heap of rubble, its walls and gates destroyed, and the former glory of its temple reduced to a pile of smoke-blackened stones.

Yet, after 70 years in captivity, God would allow a remnant of the people of Judah to return to the land, where they would once again occupy the city of Jerusalem, rebuilding its walls and restoring the temple and the sacrificial system. And it would be hundreds of years later that Jesus, the Messiah of the Jewish people, would enter the city of Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of the people.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” – Matthew 21:9 ESV

And yet, those shouts would later turn to angry demands for His crucifixion. The people would reject God’s own Son. They would turn their backs on the very one who had come to offer them atonement for their sins and the hope of reconciliation with God.

But God is going to send His Son again. The day is coming when the Messiah will return to earth and the location of His arrival will be Jerusalem. The prophet Zechariah describes that future day.

Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. – Zechariah 14:3-4 ESV

The nations of the earth, under the leadership of Antichrist and the control of Satan, will gather to do battle with Jesus and His heavenly host.

And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:14-16 ESV

The people of Judah needed to recognize the full plan of God. It was extensive in nature and spanned the centuries. Their little slice of the divine timeline was nothing when compared with the full range of God’s redemptive plan. They were insignificant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. And they not exempt from God’s wrath. He would judge them for their sins and discipline them for their rebellion. But He would also restore them to the land because He had long-range plans that included the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. He was going to send His Son in human flesh, born into the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, and as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. And all of this had been prophesied long ago by the patriarch, Jacob.

Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor. – Genesis 49:9-10 NLT

God is not done with Judah. And He has not yet fulfilled all the prophecies found in the book of Zephaniah. But He will.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

To the Glory of God

“I have heard the taunts of Moab
    and the revilings of the Ammonites,
how they have taunted my people
    and made boasts against their territory.
Therefore, as I live,” declares the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel,
“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”
10 This shall be their lot in return for their pride,
    because they taunted and boasted
    against the people of the Lord of hosts.
11 The Lord will be awesome against them;
    for he will famish all the gods of the earth,
and to him shall bow down,
    each in its place,
    all the lands of the nations. Zephaniah 2:8-11 ESV

After having issued His warning of coming judgment upon the Philistines, God now addresses Judah’s neighbors to the east. Moab and Ammon lie on the opposite side of the Dead Sea in land that is often referred to as the Transjordan.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the people of Israel were making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, they had to pass through this region of the Transjordan. And when they arrived at the border of Moab, God commanded Moses to avoid any confrontation with the people who lived there.

“And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’” – Deuteronomy 2:8-9 ESV

God also commanded that the Israelites treat the people of Ammon in the same way and for a similar reason.

“And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.…” – Deuteronomy 2:19 ESV

To grasp what’s going on here, you have to understand why God had given “the sons of Lot” possession of these territories. Lot was the nephew of Abraham who, according to the book of Genesis, accompanied his uncle when he began his God-ordained relocation to Canaan.

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. – Genesis 12:12:5 ESV

Upon their arrival in the land of Canaan, Lot and Abram eventually parted ways.

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. – Genesis 13:10-13 ESV

This little bit of historical context is going to be important as we move through God’s judgment upon Moab and Ammon. Lot ended up settling in the wicked city of Sodom, rather than taking up residence in the “well-watered” Jordan Valley. And sometime later, when God brought judgment upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He would spare Lot and his family “because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him” (2 Peter 4:7 NLT).

But during their escape from the city of Sodom, Lot’s wife would die for violating God’s command. He had commanded them, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17 ESV). 

But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26 ESV). With the death of his wife, “Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters” (Genesis 19:30 ESV). And it didn’t take long before the negative influence of having grown up in Sodom became apparent. Fearful that they would both become old maids, unmarried and childless, the two daughters of Lot conspired to get their father drunk and have sex with him. The result of their illicit and immoral decision would be the nations of Moab and Ammon.

Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day. – Genesis 19:36-38 ESV

Now that we have the historical context, let’s got back to the prophecy of Zephaniah. God specifically calls out Moab and Ammon, the descendants of Lot and the close relatives of God’s chosen people. And He accuses them of having taunted and reviled the people of Judah. As far back as Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Moabites had been guilty of trying to prevent the Israelites from settling in the land of Canaan. The sheer number of Israelites had frightened the people of Moab.

And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” – Numbers 22:3-4 ESV

So, the king of Moab had hired a local diviner named Balaam, ordering him to pronounce a curse of the people of Israel.

Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22:6 ESV

But God prevented Balaam from cursing the people of Israel. In fact, he would actually end up pronouncing a God-ordained blessing upon the people of Israel. And that blessing would take the form of a prophetic message concerning the coming Messiah and the Savior of the world.

“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed;
    Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
    Israel is doing valiantly.
And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
    and destroy the survivors of cities!” – Numbers 24:17-19 ESV

The Ammonites would also prove to be a constant source of animosity for the people of Israel, waging war against them throughout the period of the judges and well into the reigns of Saul and David. The Ammonites and Moabites, while descendants of Lot, were a pagan people who worshiped false gods. And God commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with them because those relationships would lead the Israelites to turn their backs on Him. Yet, even King Solomon would choose to disobey God, marrying Naamah, who was an Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21). And Solomon would end up worshiping the gods of his many pagan wives and concubines, resulting in God dividing his kingdom in half, creating the northern nation of Israel and the southern nation of Judah.

But back to Moab and Ammon. God had plans for them. They were not going to enjoy their pagan ways forever. Their pride and arrogance and their hostility toward the people of Judah would be repaid.

“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.” – Zephaniah 2:9 ESV

God foreshadows the coming destruction of these two nations, comparing their fall to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isn’t it fascinating that God chooses to use these two wicked cities to describe the fall of Ammon and Moab? The common link is Lot, the progenitor of the Ammonites and Moabites. But the two cities and the two nations also share a track record of wickedness, pride, sin, immorality, and godlessness.

Ultimately, the sins of Moab and Ammon were against God. By rejecting Israel, they had rejected Him.

“Make him drunk, because he magnified himself against the Lord, so that Moab shall wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision.

We have heard of the pride of Moab—
    he is very proud—
of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
    and the haughtiness of his heart.
I know his insolence, declares the Lord;
    his boasts are false,
    his deeds are false.” – Jeremiah 48:26, 29-30 ESV

“I will make Rabbah a pasture for camels and Ammon a fold for flocks. Then you will know that I am the Lord. For thus says the Lord God: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within your soul against the land of Israel…” – Ezekiel 25:5-6 ESV

The day is coming, the “great day of the Lord,” when He will bring His judgment against all the nations of the earth. And there will be a reason for God’s destruction of these pagan nations.

The Lord will terrify them
    as he destroys all the gods in the land.
Then nations around the world will worship the Lord,
    each in their own land. – Zephaniah 2:11 NLT

He will remove all vestiges of the false gods that have led the nations to live in open rebellion to Him. He will destroy them, making it perfectly clear that He is the one and only God. And the end result will be that the nations of the world will bow down in worship of Him and Him alone.

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’” – Romans 14:11 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

They Have Sinned Against the Lord

14 The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
    the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.

17 I will bring distress on mankind,
    so that they shall walk like the blind,
    because they have sinned against the Lord;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
    and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.Zephaniah 1:14-18 ESV

Zephaniah is warning of two judgments to come. One will involve the people of Judah. The other will include the rest of humanity, as well as all beasts, birds, and fish. What makes reading these prophetic passages so difficult is that the timeline regarding these future judgments is unclear. The prophet seems to combine portions pertaining to each judgment into one message, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. He uses a single phrase to reference both judgments: The great day of the Lord.

This speaks of a day, an actual point in time when God will display His wrath against sinful mankind. But it is important to recognize that Zephaniah is foretelling the coming judgment of Judah, the people of God, and the far-more-distant judgment of mankind. These are two separate events that will both be seen as “great days” because they will each involve the inescapable wrath of God against the sins of men.

And Zephaniah makes it quite clear that the coming judgments of God will be due to sin. God is not capricious or cavalier. He does not have an anger-management problem. The book of Ezekiel describes God as persistently patient and kind, having displayed amazing self-control, even in the face of mankind’s ongoing refusal to honor Him as their Creator and God. But God will not put up with humanity’s rejection of Him forever. As a holy God, He cannot allow sin to remain unpunished. The guilty must be condemned and face the righteous consequences for their acts.

The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. – Ezekial 36:23 ESV

And Zephaniah states that the great day of the Lord is coming on sinful mankind “because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:17 ESV). King Solomon added his assessment of the problem: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). And centuries later, the apostle Paul would provide his own Spirit-inspired take on the problem: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

In verses 14-16, Zephaniah describes the day of the Lord as being near. It is barreling down the track like an out-of-control freight train, with no means of stopping its devastating arrival.

It will be…

…a day of wrath
a day of distress and anguish
… day of ruin and devastation
a day of darkness and gloom
…a day of clouds and thick darkness
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

It will be marked by bitterness and distress. It will involve great suffering and, ultimately, death. And there will be no escape.

These descriptors were meant to apply to the coming judgment of Judah, which would take place with the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. But they also describe the final day of the Lord, which will occur at the end of the seven-year period of time called the Great Tribulation – an end-times event that will precede the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

Both of these events, the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians, and the final judgment of all mankind at the hand of Christ are examples of the “day of the Lord.”

“As employed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord is that time when for His glory and in accordance with His purposes God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.” – Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

When Zephaniah described the day of the Lord as being near, he was not exaggerating. He was not using hyperbole. We know from the opening lines of the book that Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC). We also know that the first deportation of Jews to Babylon took place in 605 BC. Josiah died in 609 BC, and his son, Jehoahaz, replaced him on the throne. But his reign would last just three months, and he would be succeeded by his brother, Jehoiakim. At this point, the Babylonians had already begun their conquest of the region, demanding tribute payments from the occupants of the land. Jehoiakim joined the other nations in the area by sending exorbitant sums of money to Nebuchadnezzar in an effort to stave off further destruction. In spite of these ransom payments, Nebuchadnezzar began deporting the people of Judah in 609 BC.

When Zephaniah delivered this prophetic word concerning the coming day of the Lord, the end was nearer than anyone could have imagined. No more than five years remained until the pending judgment would begin. The deportation of the people of Judah to Babylon would ultimately be accompanied by the destruction of Jerusalem. And before the city fell, there would be a prolonged siege followed by intense fighting and the total annihilation of the city.

The people of Judah would no longer be able to buy their way out of trouble.

Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

Once God made His decision to bring judgment against His people, there would be nothing they could do to prevent it. The opportunity to repent would no longer exist. The hope of buying more time by bribing the Babylonians would end. God’s patience with His people will have run its course, and the promise of His judgment will find its fulfillment.

But notice how this chapter ends.

In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

This is one of those instances where the two different judgments being predicted by Zephaniah seem to overlap, creating a somewhat confusing and difficult to comprehend scenario. In the same verse, he warns that the people of Judah would be unable to buy their way out of God’s judgment, but he also warns that God’s judgment will result in the complete destruction of all the inhabitants of the earth.

The question that must be asked is whether this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. And the answer is obviously, “No.” The inhabitants of the earth still exist. The earth itself has not yet been consumed. So, it would make sense that there are two judgments involved. One, in the not-so-distant future that will involve the nation of Judah. The other, in the as-yet-to-be-revealed future that will involve all the nations of the earth.

It is clear, from the historical record, that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. It is also clear that after 70 years in captivity in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Canaan. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a remnant of the people were given permission by King Cyrus to return to the land, rebuild the city of Jerusalem, restore its walls, and renovate the long-abandoned temple. The sacrificial system would be reinstituted, and the celebration of Passover reinstated to the annual calendar.  In keeping with His covenant promise, God would restore the Israelites to the land He had given them. And they remain in that land to this day.

And their restoration to the land was in order that God might one day send His Son in human flesh, born as a descendant of King David, into the tribe of Judah. But as the apostle John points out, Jesus would come to His own, but they would refuse to receive Him (John 1:11). And John adds that Jesus came into the world He created, “yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10 ESV).

The first advent of Jesus into the world was marked by rejection. The vast majority of the world, including His own people, the Jews, would refuse to accept Him as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. And their rejection of Him would take the form of their demand for His crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah predicted that when Jesus came, He would be “despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT).  Rather than accept Him, the people would turn their backs on him and look the other way. He would be despised, and no one would care.

But there is a day when Jesus will come again. He will have a second advent or arrival on earth, but this time He will come to bring judgment. It will be the great day of the Lord when, as Robert Patterson put it, “God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.”

God’s plan for mankind extends well beyond the people of Judah and the time period in which Zephaniah prophesied. He is providing through His prophet a glimpse into His full redemptive plan, which will find its final fulfillment in the Second Coming of Christ and the pouring out of His judgment upon unrepentant humanity. But all those who have placed their faith in God’s Son will find forgiveness for their sins, restoration to a right relationship with Him, and the joy of unbroken, undiminished fellowship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Sin will be punished. Faith will be rewarded. The earth will be made new. The saints of God will receive their resurrected bodies. And the joy of the eternal state will begin and never end.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

Enough is Enough

7 Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
    and consecrated his guests.
And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice—
“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
    and all who array themselves in foreign attire.
On that day I will punish
    everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their master’s house
    with violence and fraud.

10 “On that day,” declares the Lord,
    “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate,
a wail from the Second Quarter,
    a loud crash from the hills.
11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar!
    For all the traders are no more;
    all who weigh out silver are cut off.
12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
    and I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’
13 Their goods shall be plundered,
    and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
    they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
    they shall not drink wine from them.”Zephaniah 1:7-13 ESV

The message of Zephaniah is one of judgment. He is a messenger of God delivering a series of prophecies that outline specific acts of divine retribution awaiting Judah for its persistent apostasy. His message contains the “what” but not the “when.” Zephaniah has no idea of the timeline involved in God’s judgment. But God had made it clear that the “what” was going to be significant and inescapable. The entire world would bear the brunt of God’s righteous indignation.

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2

I will sweep away man and beast;…the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea…” – vs. 3

I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3

God warns of the global and all-encompassing nature of His coming judgment. The entire world will experience the wrath of God being poured out on the sins of mankind.  But God also directs the prophet’s attention to the fate of Judah.

I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4

There seems to be a separate series of judgments reserved for the nation of Judah. The “what” God has in store for them is distinctly different than the one He has planned for the rest of the world. And as we will see, the “when” or the timeline concerning their judgment will also differ.

Judah’s status as God’s chosen people had always set them apart. They had enjoyed the distinct privilege of being His treasured possession (Exodus 19:5), a people holy to the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:6), and had been called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). So, it only makes sense that God would have a separate and distinct judgment in store for His chosen people. Their unmerited status as His chosen people had afforded them unprecedented blessings and had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.

Centuries earlier, Moses had told the Jews who had been released from captivity in Egypt: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV). And God had graciously provided them with His law to establish His criteria for holy conduct. If they were to be a holy nation they would have to live holy lives. And for those times when they failed to live up to God’s law, He had provided the tabernacle and the sacrificial system as a means for receiving atonement for their sins. God had given them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. A land flowing with milk and honey, rich in produce, and abundant in natural resources. They had been richly blessed. And yet, they had proven to be deeply unfaithful.

The oft-quoted phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here. The people of Judah had enjoyed periods of tremendous power and prestige. They had benefited greatly from their relationship with God. But as Jesus Himself once said, When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required (Luke 12:48 NLT).

So, we see in this prophecy from the pen of Zephaniah a two-fold description of coming judgment. There will be a judgment reserved for the nation of Judah and one that will encompass the rest of mankind. In the text, the two are woven together, creating an overwhelming sense of God’s righteous anger with the state of His creation and the spiritual apostasy of His chosen people. God is not happy, and He will not continue to tolerate the current state of affairs in the world or in the nation Judah. The question remains, who will He punish first, when He will do it, and how.

Verses 4-6 contain God’s indictment against the people of Judah. They were guilty of idolatry. They worshiped Baal, Molech, and a host of other false gods representing the sun, moon, and stars. And while the people still swore allegiance to God, they committed spiritual adultery by giving themselves to the gods of the Canaanites. They had turned their backs on God. They had repeatedly displayed their unfaithfulness through acts of infidelity.

So, Zephaniah warns them, “the day of the Lord is near” (Zephaniah 1:7 ESV). And he commands the people of Judah to “be silent.” Now that they were hearing about God’s coming judgment, they were to keep their mouths shut. It was too late to cry out for mercy. Notice that in verse six, the people of Judah are described as those “who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” They had stopped calling on God. They were too busy bowing down to their false gods. And now that judgment was coming, God denied them the right to call out to Him for mercy.

Zephaniah describes the familiar scene of a sacrifice. But in this case, God is the one offering the sacrifice, and He has invited guests to join Him for the occasion. In this case, Judah represents the sacrificial animal and the Babylonians are the guests. When the time is right, God will issue an invitation to the Nebuchadnezzar and his army to feast on the sacrifice that God has offered. In 586 BC, the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem would be plundered and destroyed. The temple would be ransacked and left as a pile of stones. The people would be taken captive and returned to Babylon as slaves.

And God warns “And on the day of the Lord‘s sacrifice — ‘I will punish the officials and the king’s sons’” (Zephaniah 1:8 ESV). With great power comes great responsibility. To whom much has been given, much will be required. The kings of Judah would be held responsible by God. Rather than using their power and positions to lead the people in the faithful service of God, they had displayed a pattern of disdain and disobedience. And God warned that they would suffer the consequences.

According to 2 Kings 23:34, Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah who would ascend to the throne after him, was taken captive to Egypt. The next king, Jehoiakim, would fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1-6). Jehoiachin, the grandson of Josiah, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-10). Zedekiah, the last son of Josiah to reign in Jerusalem, was eventually blinded by Nebuchadnezzar and taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7). Each of these men had been guilty of idolatry and of making alliances with foreign nations, rather than trusting in God. Zephaniah describes them as having arrayed themselves in foreign attire. They had modeled themselves after pagan kings, emulating their appearance and worshiping their false gods.

But not only the kings of Judah will suffer judgment at the hands of God. The nation as a whole stands guilty and worthy of divine punishment. Zephaniah describes “everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (Zephaniah 1:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but it seems likely that Zephaniah is accusing the people of Judah of practicing injustice, in direct violation of God’s commands.

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:23 ESV

And yet, the people of Judah had made a habit out of taking advantage of one another.

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
 – Ezekiel 22:29 ESV

They were marked by greed, violence, and fraud. And they would pay for dearly for their decision to ignore God’s commands.

On that day – when the judgment of God comes – the impact will be felt throughout the city of Jerusalem. From the Fish Gate to the Second Quarter and from the hills to the marketplace, every single inhabitant of Jerusalem would feel the heat of God’s wrath. “Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste” (Zephaniah 1:13 ESV). No one will escape judgment because all will stand as guilty before God.

And while there will be those who think that God is disinterested in their affairs and has turned a blind eye to their behavior, they will be in for a rude awakening.

“I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’” – Zephaniah 1:12 ESV

God would no longer tolerate sin among His people. He would not allow them to continue denigrating His name and defaming His holy character by their actions. They were His people and their behavior was leaving a black mark on His name. But God was about to rectify that problem.

“And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” – Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson