Tonight we start a new series of studies in the Old Testament book of Zephaniah and with chapter 1.1-13. Our series is called The Reality Of God and tonight our subject is “God Warning”.
The fearful thing about modern Western Civilization is that millions believe a big lie. Hitler held to the view that "people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it." More importantly Jesus held that,
“the devil … is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8.44).
And the big lie today is that there is no creator of this universe and no objective reality apart from what you can see. There is no right and no wrong, and nothing is true or false. Reality is what you make it.
Such relativism is nothing new. In ancient Greece Protagoras taught that, I quote,
"Man is the measure of all things."
Well, the message of Zephaniah is that is a lie. For God, our creator, is the measure of all things. We are creatures. And God is not only there; he also has ideas on how you are to live. And if you do not face up to that reality, the consequences will be fearful either sooner or later. We are talking about consequences of not only fearful but global proportions. They are that serious. Look at verses 2 and 3 of Zephaniah 1:
"'I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,' declares the LORD’. I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth," declares the LORD'."
Already someone is probably saying...
"... but isn't this just the Old Testament? Don't we want, not Old Testament religion, but New Testament religion and learn about Jesus who would be more loving?"
How do you reply? First, you look at the opening words of Zephaniah 1.1:
"The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah …”
You see, this book claims to be, in some mysterious way, both the work of Zephaniah and the work of Almighty God. Through Zephaniah's personality and style you are, somehow, hearing directly from God. But who is this God? The New Testament makes it clear that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit - one God in three persons. So you cannot think that this "word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah" has nothing to do with God the Son, who became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Secondly, what do Jesus and the New Testament actually teach us about Old Testament prophets and the Old Testament generally? Well, Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Mat 5:17).
In Mark we read that he critized those who twisted the Old Testament's plain meaning. He said:
"You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" (Mark 7:9-13).
And in Luke and John Jesus said the Old Testament pointed to himself. Then the apostle Paul said that the whole Old Testament was...
"...so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15.4).
In 1 Corinthians Paul taught that you need to learn lessons for today from Old Testament examples of disobedience (1 Cor 10.6). And in a classic passage, Paul says the Old Testament gives you wisdom that leads to salvation (2 Tim 3:15). He then says (in the next verse, verse 16):
"All Scripture [still referring to the Old Testament although some of the New Testament was probably already circulating - All Scripture] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."
So you have to take the Old Testament seriously; and that means taking Zephaniah seriously. Well, so much by way of introduction.
I now have just two headings as we try to take Zephaniah seriously: first, ZEPHANIAH'S MESSAGE and secondly, ZEPHANIAH FOR TODAY.
First, ZEPHANIAH'S MESSAGE;
Let me begin with some background. Look again at verse 1:
"The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah."
Zephaniah tells us about his ancestry. No other Old Testament prophet does that. It suggests that Zephaniah was of some importance. Indeed, it seems he was connected to the Royal Family. For verse 1 tells us that his great, great grandfather was Hezekiah. But who was Hezekiah? Well, let's go back.
You remember how Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the promised land. Then after a period of chaos when "judges" ruled, there were three kings - Saul, David and Solomon. But after Solomon the kingdom was divided into two, between the North and the South.
By the time of Zephaniah the Northern kingdom had so rejected and disobeyed God that God allowed the North to be overrun by the brutal Assyrians and its people taken captive to Assyria. Meanwhile in the Southern Kingdom things went from bad to worse. They, too, were ignoring and disobeying God through their idolatry, immorality and violence. God, however, raised up various prophets to try to turn the people back to himself. Eventually 100 years before Zephaniah, there was a reforming king named Hezekiah. And probably he is the Hezekiah of verse 1 - Zephaniah's great, great grandfather.
But when Hezekiah died, things went not only from bad to worse but to the worst possible. Hezekiah's son Manasseh was proverbial for his wickedness. He and, after him, his son Amon undid all the good work of Hezekiah. Manasseh was proverbial because of his killing very young children for ritual purposes. Who says the Old Testament is not relevant today?
It surely makes us ask questions about abortion practice against which Christians have protested since the early centuries of the church's life. In the 40 years since the UK abortion Act 6.7 million abortions have been carried out in Great Britain - 98% of which were for 'social' reasons; only 2% for medical reasons. And there are those saying we should wait until birth before killing young human life - as can happen now in Holland.
However, then came Amon's son, Josiah, in the mid 7th century BC. It was in his reign that Zephaniah was prophesying (as we are told in verse 1). And Josiah was, like Hezekiah, a reforming king. But how did Josiah come to be so different to his wicked father and grandfather and be someone wanting to turn back to God? The workings of people's hearts and minds are, of course, known only to God. But usually others are involved down the line in people’s conversion - that person who says something that makes them think in new ways. Or someone invites them to a taster session of Christianity Explored or a mission talk or a Sunday Service. According to some recent American research, quite often it is the influence of family members. Maybe Zephaniah, who was related to Josiah through his great, great Grandfather Hezekiah, was himself such an influence.
However, the critical thing for Josiah was his rediscovery of the Bible (or part of it). You read about that in 2 Kings 22. It was, of course, the rediscovery of the Bible in the 16th century that led to the great European Reformation. How today we need a rediscovery of the Bible, if we are to see a new genuine European Christian Reformation!
It is not clear whether Zephaniah was prophesying before Josiah's reforms and so doing necessary spiritual spade work. Or was he prophesying after the reforms when many people were still quite unaffected? Scholars are divided. Be that as it may, what was Zephaniah's main message?
First, as we have seen from verse 2, our God is a God of judgment. He is not a sort of Father Christmas God. The Old Testament is crystal clear on the nature of God. After the shocking incident in the desert of the Golden Calf, God revealed himself again to Moses and said this (Exodus 34.6-7):
"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
God is a God of love but also of justice who punishes what is wrong. Nor is this just Old Testament teaching. Paul, in that great epistle of God's love and justice - the epistle to the Romans - says in chapter 11 verse 22:
"consider the kindness and sternness of God."
One of the first Christian heretics was Marcion in the 2nd century AD who rejected the Old Testament. He did not like the "sternness" of the Old Testament God. He did not want a God of righteousness and wrath. He wanted a Father Christmas God. But the early Christians were adamant. God is both loving and just. He is both kind and stern. In Zephaniah's time people were the same as Marcion. They were living as though they could do what they liked and God would simile on them. But Zephaniah is saying, "No! God does not always, and will not always, smile on you." Look at verse 7:
"Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited."
And verse 8 shows that this is not just a happy meal:
"On the day of the Lord's sacrifice I will punish ..."
He then lists a number of those who are incurring God's judgement. First, there are those - and particularly the clergy - who were forsaking the true God and preferring another God, especially one of the Baals. These Baals were local Ancient Near Eastern deities. The great attraction of Baal worship was that you could mix religion and sex. So you went to church, or its equivalent, and had sex. There were pretty young women (and men) available at the shrines for your physical convenience. Short term there was pleasure. Long term such promiscuous sex was disastrous in terms of family cohesion and so the nurture of children. There is evidence for that, elsewhere, in the Old Testament. So verse 4 says:
"I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem. I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests."
Secondly, verse 5, tells us there will be punishment for ...
"those who bow down on the roofs to worship the starry host."
These were quite unlike Baal worshippers. They were astrologers who believed that the stars controlled human and world destiny. And people still believe that. So they read horoscopes in the papers and magazines and the occult books you see in vast quantities in book shops. This can be dangerous when people believe predictions and get into bondage to them. The Old Testament is against all fortune telling and the like. But there is also a current more sophisticated version of star worship. It is naturalistic materialism. It says that impersonal nature, or matter, is ultimate. So nature gives rise to a personal God, not a personal God to nature. This seems to be the belief of the atheist Richard Dawkins. Zephaniah, however, says (virtually), "Rubbish! For God began this world and he will end it.",
Thirdly, verse 5b says there were also those who wanted to have it both ways:
"those who bow down and swear by the LORD and who also swear by Molech."
On Sunday they went to church (or the temple). But on Monday they went to the primitive equivalent of an abortion clinic - for Molech worship involved child sacrifice.
Fourthly, and these perhaps were, for Zephaniah, the worst of all. They were, verse 6,...
"...those who turn back from following the LORD and neither seek the LORD nor inquire of him."
These are backsliders - people who just drift. Anyone like that here tonight? You are not an atheist but a practical atheist. You live as though God did not exist. Well, look at verse 12:
"At that time [says the Lord] I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, 'The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad."
These are not people getting into orgiastic sex like the Baal worshippers, or killing babies in pagan rituals, like Molech worshippers, or aggressive believers in nature as ultimate like star worshippers. No! They just do nothing positively with regard to the true and living God. They are "complacent" and think that God is irrelevant - he will "do nothing either good or bad". And because of all these things God is going to bring judgement. That is the message of Zephaniah.
So what do we make of it for today - my second heading?
Secondly,ZEPHANIAH FOR TODAY
First, Jesus also taught about judgment. We had it in our Gospel reading tonight. He taught that God's judgment, when it comes, will take everyone by surprise. Life will seem so normal. Jesus referred to the days of Noah (Matt 24. 38-39):
"in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man."
And life was so normal in Zephaniah's day. One, life at the top was carrying on as usual. Celebrities were forming the equivalent of a global jet set with common fashions:
"On that day of the Lord's sacrifice I will punish the princes and the king's sons and all those clad in foreign clothes" (verse 8).
They were going to be punished, presumably, because somehow they were doing what they wanted and not what God wanted.
Two, religion was carrying on as usual but it was corrupt and no one seemed to bother. Or are people too bothered today that even in this country their is violence in extreme Islam and deceitful immorality in liberal Protestantism - verse 9:
"On that day I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold, who fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit."
And, three, businesses and finance were going on as usual, verses 10-11:
"'On that day,' declares the LORD, 'cry will go up from the Fish Gate, wailing from the New Quarter, and a loud crash from the hills. Wail, you who live in the market district; all your merchants will be wiped out, all who trade with silver will be ruined.'"
Perhaps these people were putting wealth in the place of God. Something was wrong. So the mere fact that currently things seem so normal, does not mean a message of judgment is not true. Zephaniah was prophesying (or preaching) when, humanly speaking, times seemed relatively good. He was prophesying so that people would repent and judgment would not come. Things would then stay good.
Nor, in fact, did judgment come immediately. It was 35 years after Josiah's Reforms before Zephaniah's prophesy was partly fulfilled in 586. That was when the Babylonians captured and sacked Jerusalem in the South and took its people captive. Even then it did not exhaust Zephaniah's prophesy. The destruction of Jerusalem was just a prefiguring of a final judgment. In the same way Jesus prediction of judgment was not fulfilled in the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70. That, too, was a prefiguring. For Jesus spoke of a final judgment day – when this current existence will be wound up at his Second Coming. In the light of such judgment God's people are now called to encourage people to repentance. That is so clear in Jesus teaching. For the goal is not judgment and death but salvation and life. After his Ascension he says that
“repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations" (Luke 24.47).
But - and this is a big "but" - there can only be repentance when reality is faced. Zephaniah is a great reality check. Zephaniah's analysis of sin is so vital for today. Unless people realize the seriousness of sin and the reality of present and ultimate judgment, the good news of Jesus Christ will mean nothing. Too much evangelism is of the sort,
"are you mixed up; Jesus Christ can sort you out."
That is so true. But the message of Zephaniah and the New Testament is this. God is real - whether you believe it or not. One day you are going to give an account of your life to him. And God’s righteous sternness will mean ultimate judgement. But out of his loving kindness he has sent Jesus Christ to help you prepare for that occasion and get an acquittal. For Christ died for you to bear the punishment you deserve.
Most people know little about the courts except from films and TV. You saw the trial of Saddam Hussein on the news. For a moment imagine yourself as Saddam Hussein. And you hear that guilty verdict in the court in Baghdad. You are being sentenced to death. And it is for real - Saddam was executed. Well, the Bible uses these court metaphors to help you understand the seriousness of what it is talking about. You can ignore them. On the judgment day you cannot then say God has not warned you. But as we will be learning from the end of Zephaniah, there does not have to be a guilty conviction. Chapter 3 verse 15 says,
"The Lord has taken away your punishment."
That is why we regularly have communion services. They remind us we can have our sins pardoned. We can go free because Jesus Christ on the Cross took all the punishment we deserve - punishment for the modern equivalent of Baalism, star worship, going in both directions at once and simply doing nothing, plus a galaxy of wrong things we have done we have not realized. No one is too good to need to be forgiven or too bad to be forgiven. Christ will forgive all sins, if we repent. Who has never yet repented (that is to recognize you are defying or ignoring the God that is there) and been forgiven for your sins (by faith as you trust and thank Christ for dying for you and accept new life by his Holy Spirit)? I do not want to force anyone, but why not do that tonight – and as you sit? And if you want to ask more questions, come to the Christianity Explored Taster session on Wednesday or Thursday evening.