This evening we come to the final section of our series in the book of Zephaniah. We have thought about God Warning, God Reigning, and God Acting. Our title tonight is God Saving.
We have already seen how Zephaniah has announced judgement on Judah and Jerusalem. He has warned of coming destruction. He has spoken of the great day of the Lord and the outpouring of God’s wrath on the nations of the world. Even Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, needs to be afraid for God’s punishment is about to come upon her.
Zephaniah’s message falls consistently within the message of other prophetic books in the Bible. God’s people have forsaken him, and he will now forsake them. The people of Israel have run after other gods. They have prostituted themselves to Baal and Molech, and have bowed down before the starry hosts. Instead of being God’s holy people, they have dishonoured his name, and engaged in wicked, evil behaviour. God’s judgement will indeed fall on them.
But like many of the other prophets, Zephaniah also has a message of hope. Not only does he announce judgement he also speaks with hope of a time after the day of destruction.
I wonder if you have ever seen video images of new plants sprouting after a forest fire. Vast areas of land destroyed by a fire that sweeps through the forest, burning the twigs and undergrowth. Leaving the tree stumps blackened and bare. A layer of black ash covering the ground. It looks like all is destroyed. But just a few months later the scene begins to change and as you look at the speeded up images you watch as a new fern uncurls or a leaf appears on the end of a twig. There is new life after the destruction and devastation.
Well in Zephaniah chapter 3 verses 9 to 20, Zephaniah speaks of new life after destruction. He tells us about God Saving his people. So do please have your Bibles open at chapter 3. I am going to look at the saving action of God under three headings: 1) THE REMOVAL Of ALL EVIL 2) THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD and 3) THE WITNESS TO THE NATIONS.
1) THE REMOVAL OF ALL EVIL (v9-13)
So first, the removal of all evil.
If you want to correctly understand Old Testament prophecy, it helps enormously to realise that it often functions at more than one level. As the Old Testament prophets describe the future they point beyond their immediate time to a future event, and often beyond that again to a second future event that completes or totally fulfils their prophecy. Let me try and explain what I am saying using an illustration.
When I am standing at the side of a lake with my children we sometimes like to pick up stones and throw them into the water. I like to find a smooth flat one that I can skim across the surface. And I try to see how many times I can get it to bounce. Every so often I manage four or five bounces but most of the time it just bounces a couple of times. It hits the water the first time, and goes up again, but the second time it hits the water it sinks in.
The prophecies in Zephaniah are a bit like that. When Zephaniah speaks of God’s judgement on the nations it is like a stone that hits the water twice. The first time God’s judgement fell was when the Babylonian empire invaded the region and destroyed the countries listed in chapter 2 – Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush and Assyria. Jerusalem itself was burnt, the wall torn down and the temple destroyed. That was the first fulfilment of Zephaniah’s prophecy.
But Zephaniah’s prophecy strikes again on a day that is yet to come. The great and terrible day of the LORD. The day when the prophecy will be fully fulfilled has yet to come even for us. The stone has yet to hit the water a second time and sink in. Zephaniah’s prophecy will only fully be completed when God returns on the final judgement day. On that day he will set his throne in place and judge the nations of the world. His wrath will be fully experienced and it will be a dreadful day for all who have not turned to him and repented of their wickedness. The world will be brought to an end and all evil will be removed and dealt with.
But as I have already said, the book of Zephaniah also contains a message of hope. And like the message of judgement that message of hope also hits twice. The good news of restoration, of the honouring of Jerusalem, of a purified people, was partially fulfilled, the first time, when a remnant was brought back to Jerusalem. You might remember how under Nehemiah and Ezra the people rebuilt the temple and the wall. They tried to live as a holy people.
Yet, from our perspective on history, we know that God’s blessing was not fully experienced. The people of Israel did not benefit from lasting peace, they turned away from God, and largely rejected the Son of God, Jesus Christ, when he came. So the prophecy of hope that we are about to consider has yet to be completely fulfilled. It will only be in the new creation, the renewed earth, that Zephaniah’s message of hope finally sinks in.
So let’s bear that in mind as we consider the specifics of what he says. Beginning with verses 9 to 13, the removal of all evil. Do please take a look with me from verse 9. God says:
9 "Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder. 10 From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings. 11 On that day you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from this city those who rejoice in their pride. Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. 12 But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD. 13The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid.” (Zep 3:9-13, NIV)
Verse 9 begins with the word ‘then’, implying that these events will take place after what has gone before. At the end of verse 8 God has poured out his wrath and fierce anger on the nations. The whole world has been consumed by the fire of his jealous anger. But after those events, after the day of judgement, comes the experience of blessing. God’s people are refined and purified and the outpouring of God’s blessing follows judgment.
When I was at secondary school I remember watching educational TV programmes about iron ore smelting or the manufacturing of steel. In that process the impurities or slag floats on top of the heavier metal, and is removed and discarded or recycled. There is a refining process as the heat is applied. The end product is pure.
God says verse 9, that he will purify his people. Verse 11, that he will remove the proud and the haughty. Verse 13, those who are left
“will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths” (3:13)
The end result of the refining process of God’s judgement will be that all evil is removed. His people will be holy just as he himself is holy.
At one level that was partially fulfilled in the exile, and the return from exile, and the attempts of the remnant to live in the rebuilt Jerusalem. But ultimately the removal of all evil will only be experienced in the new creation.
Perhaps you would put a bit of paper in Zephaniah and turn over with me to the book of Revelation. Revelation chapter 21. John describes the new creation and the removal of all evil in verses 5 to 8. Revelation chapter 21 verse 5.
5 "He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:5-8, NIV)
And jumping down to verse 27, and John’s description of the New Jerusalem. Chapter 21 verse 27:
27 "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life." (Rev 21:27, NIV)
John is describing the new heaven and earth, the renewed creation. He is describing eternity and the final fulfilment of Zephaniah’s prophecy. And he says exactly the same thing as Zephaniah – all evil will one day be removed.
That is the glorious hope that we have to look forward to as Christians. The new creation is a place where we can live in safety because all evil and all who commit evil will be excluded from it. You won’t be left wondering if you can trust the person selling you something – because no one will tell lies. You will no longer have to worry about family members and their safety when they are out late at night. There will no one who encourages you to forsake the Lord and engage in wickedness. All evil will be removed from the new creation.
Now it might be that your experience of life at the moment is one of hardship. You are living with the consequences of evil – either because of something you have done or someone else has done. Perhaps your house was broken into recently and you have been left feeling very shaken. Maybe you have been on the receiving end of abuse or lies. Perhaps this past week you have been sick or diagnosed with a disease.
The hope of Zephaniah’s message is that God saves. When this world is brought to an end and God’s sits in judgement, all evil will be removed, and Christians will enjoy the world as it was intended to be. So let that encourage you, and give you hope, in the midst of whatever effect of evil and sin you are currently facing. As Christians we know that one day we will experience the removal of all evil from our world and our own lives.
2) THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD (v14-17)
Not only that, but the new creation will be a place where the LORD is present. That is my second heading the presence of the LORD. If you would place a marker in Revelation chapter 21 and turn back to Zephaniah. Zephaniah chapter 3 verses 14 to 17. The presence of the LORD. This is what Zephaniah writes, verse 14:
14 "Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zep 3:14-17, NIV)
Zephaniah speaks of a day of great rejoicing. Sing, shout aloud, be glad, rejoice, O Israel, O daughter of Jerusalem. After judgment, comes hope. After punishment, salvation. The great and terrible day of the Lord has passed and God’s people no longer need to fear. They have been purified and refined and now experience the presence of the LORD. “The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you”, verse 15. “The LORD your God is with you”, verse 17.
The judgement of chapters 1 and 2 had been fully justified. Israel and the surrounding nations had rebelled against God, they had rejected his call to obey, and therefore experienced God’s wrath and judgement. But now the remnant that Zephaniah describes, experience his presence and his protection. Those who survive the exile are brought back and Jerusalem is rebuilt.
In a similar way those who survive the final day of God’s judgement will be brought into eternity and the new creation. As Christians we look forward with hope to the time when we will enjoy God’s presence forever. Turn over please again to Revelation chapter 21 and this time to verses 1 to 4. John writes, Revelation 21 verse 1:
1"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4, NIV)
It is a beautiful picture of God’s presence. Zephaniah’s prophecy is not ultimately fulfilled in an earthly Jerusalem, but rather his prophecy finds ultimate fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is as the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven, that God becomes fully present with his people. And the presence of the LORD means blessing and protection. The removal of all tears. No more “death or mourning or crying or pain” in the new creation “for the older order of things has passed away” (21:4), verse 4.
And look back to Zephaniah chapter 3. Chapter 3 and verse 17 we read;
“The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Passing through the fire of God’s judgement is a traumatic experience. The people of Israel were taken into exile. They experienced the destruction of so much they had known. But Zephaniah speaks of comfort for God’s people.
You have perhaps observed a young child falling down some stairs, breaking into tears more from shock than anything else, sobbing uncontrollably until his mother picks him up, puts him on her shoulder and pats him on the back. Gradually the tears subside and the shock and trauma pass away.
That seems to be the image that Zephaniah has in mind in verse 17 – a mother quietening a child that has been badly upset. The Lord will take great delight in his children, he will comfort and quieten them, he will sing over them with joy, delighted that they are included as his people.
Yes God is a God of judgement, and his wrath will be poured out on all who reject him. But God is also a God of love who is eager and quick to rescue those who turn to him. As Zephaniah says verse 17, the LORD “is mighty to save”. When his people turn to him in repentance and call on him he does save. In the light of the cross we today know that ultimately forgiveness comes only through Jesus Christ, God the Son.
There is still a day of judgement to be faced by the inhabitants of this world. But the person trusting in Christ does not need to fear that final day. To use the words of Zephaniah, verse 15, the LORD has taken away our punishment. Jesus, the son of God died in your place. Instead of judgement, you and I have the opportunity to experience God’s comfort. You are invited to experience God presence. It is the good news of restored relationship with God.
And Zephaniah reminds us as Christians that we look forward to the fullness of God’s presence in the renewed creation. That idea ought to help us now as we live as Christians. Tomorrow morning you might not feel as if God is present. As you struggle out of bed, start the day, whatever it holds. Make a decision therefore to trust in God’s presence with you tomorrow morning, even though you do not yet fully experience his presence. One day God will be fully present with his people. When that happens, you will never be in any doubt of his being there. So allow that future certainty to stretch your faith tomorrow morning and start tomorrow by acknowledging that God is present with you, even if the best has yet to come.
3) THE WITNESS TO THE NATIONS (v18-20)
There is one final theme though that I would like to draw to your attention this evening. And that is my third heading ‘the witness to the nations’, verses 18 to 20. The witness to the nations.
God’s plan of salvation in the world has always included all nations. Even way back when God was choosing Abraham and promising to bless his descendents, the people of Israel, even then God spoke of bringing blessing to all nations. The prophets in particular have a tradition of picking up on that theme. They speak of the importance of God’s people Israel being holy in order to be a witness to the nations around them. Repeatedly they talk of a future time when people of every nation will be drawn into God’s people and experience God’s blessing.
Zephaniah is no exception. Verses 18 to 20 pick up on that theme of the witness to the nations. Please have a look, from verse 18. The LORD declares:
18 “The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they were put to shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD. (Zep 3:18-20, NIV)
The LORD promises to bring a remnant back to Jerusalem. And that remnant will be a witness to all nations of what it means to be God’s people and experience God’s blessing. The Lord promises to “give them praise and honour in every land” (3:19), verse 19, to give them “honour and praise among all the people of the earth” (3:20), verse 20. The Lord will purify them, he will be present with them, and they will be a witness before all nations.
In fact there are hints in Zephaniah’s prophecy of all nations coming to worship the LORD. Of all nations being included in God’s people. Look back up to verses 9 and 10. The Lord says:
"Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings." (Zep 3:9-10, NIV)
God is speaking of a day when he will purify the lips of the peoples of the world. It is a reversal of the curse at the tower of Babel and the confusion of languages and the scattering of the nations. Now God draws back people from the nations that all of them might call on his name and worship and serve him.
The book of Revelation again speaks of the ultimate fulfilment of Zephaniah’s words. It speaks of
“ . . . a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9, NIV)
If you turn back with me one last time to Revelation chapter 21 verse 22 and following. As I read, watch out for the references to the nations and God’s presence with his holy people.
"I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it." (Rev 21:22-26, NIV)
Again the prophecies of Zephaniah and the visions of Revelation are in agreement. God’s salvation is for the benefit of people from every nation. God’s desire is that his name is honoured in ever country, by people of every tribe and language. He wants his people to be a witness to the ends of the earth so that no nation misses out on the salvation that he offers through Christ Jesus.
Zephaniah’s final prophecy speaks of victory, of restored fortunes, of honour for God’s people among the nations, not for the sake of national pride but rather so that God’s saving presence can be experienced by many different types of people.
Understanding that should again lead us to live differently here and now. Yes, we want Christians to be honoured in society today. We want the Christian world view to be upheld in our politics and laws. But the reason for that is not simply pride in our being God’s people today. But rather our desire is that Christians be honoured in Britain so that God is honoured, so that our colleagues and friends respond and place their trust in God, and live in his presence.
There is also a sense in which Zephaniah’s final prophecy relates to Christ’s commission to go into all the world and make disciples. The honouring of the Christian message in every country will be to God’s glory as his kingdom is extended. Each of us have a part to play in that in this next week. We have the good news of the gospel to proclaim. God is mighty to save as Zephaniah has declared. So as you represent God in your work place, among your friends, your family members, pray that God’s name is honoured and get on with being a witness to all nations.
Zephaniah, is a book that announces judgement, but also announces salvation. His message is one of hope not just of despair. God is a God who saves. He rescues his people, he removes evil, he is present to bless, and he desires to extend his salvation to all nations.