Zephaniah for Americans
Thus far in our series on the Minor Prophets, we’ve tended to stress the relevance of these books for all people. Both of those words are important. On the one hand, we’ve emphasized the strong universal thread in the Minor Prophets. Yahweh is Lord of all, and therefore his judgment falls upon all and his salvation is offered to all. On the other hand, we’ve stressed the particular relevance of these books for particular people, as in individuals. If God is Lord of all, then he’s Lord of you, and the message of these books demand a response from each one of us. Thus, we’ve tried to stress both the universal and the particular in the Minor Prophets.
- Hosea: We were once prostitutes, and yet God has gone to great lengths to bring us back to himself.
- Joel: Terrifying images of judgment are designed to awaken our imagination to the horrors of hell
- Amos: God will judge all; and restoration is offered to all people.
- Obadiah: No one can hurt you like your family. Though each of us is guilty in Edom, there is salvation in Jacob.
- Jonah: We bear God’s name in vain when we rejoice in our salvation and grumble when God extends it to others.
- Micah: God silences smart-mouths like us, and then saves us.
- Nahum: God is in control of your life.
- Habakkuk: In the midst of calamity, live by faith. Be patient and wait for God to act.
Again, in all of these sermons, our aim as pastors has been to bring the message of the Minor Prophets home to us as individuals and as a church. And that aim is absolutely right.
However, we don’t just exist as individuals, as families, or as a church. Nor are we simply one instance of generic humanity. Between the universal and the particular, between Man and men, between all humanity and you as an individual, is a whole range of intermediate realities. I’m not just a human, and I’m not just me. I’m a Rigney. I’m an American. I’m a Minnesotan (or, perhaps more accurately, I’m the strange hybrid known as a Texasotan). And one of the messages of the Minor Prophets is that God doesn’t just deal with us as humanity and as individuals. He deals with us as nations, as corporate entities defined by language, ethnicity, culture, and political organization. And so, it seemed good to me to use one of these sermons on the Minor Prophets to reflect on what relevance these books have on our national life. What does Zephaniah have to say to us as Americans?
The first thing to say is that on the surface, the Minor Prophets lend themselves nicely to this sort of reflection. They are, after all, addressed to nations: Israel and Judah especially, though they at times speak to other nations as well: Edom, Assyria, Moab, and so forth. And given the emphasis of all the books on Sin, Judgment, and Mercy, it’s important to note that the Judgment in question is almost invariably historical and earthly judgment: crop failure, military conquest, drought and famine, the exile of the northern kingdom, the threatened overthrow of Nineveh, the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of Judah. In light of this, let me offer four theses, drawn mainly from the Minor Prophets about this type of historical, earthly judgment of nations. God judges nations, not just Israel. While Israel is God’s special, covenant people, and therefore comes in for a particular focus, God’s dealings are not restricted to the covenant nation. In Obadiah, God judges Edom. In Jonah, he threatens judgment on Nineveh. In Nahum, he follows through on that judgment. In Amos 1-2 we see a number of foreign nations judged for specific sins. And here in Zephaniah, we see judgment declared against Philistia (2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), Cushites (2:12, Ethiopians, and possibly Zephaniah’s own people), and Assyria (2:13-15). In light of this, don’t think that God only judges his covenant people with earthly judgments. He governs all of history, and he judges all nations within history.
God’s decisive judgment is preceded by warnings in the form of mini-judgments. The decisive judgment is often called the Day of the Lord. That’s the day when God brings cataclysmic disaster upon a nation. But, prior to this, God gives mini-judgments which anticipate the Day of the Lord and which provide the people an opportunity to repent. We see this clearly in Amos 4.
Failure to respond to God’s warnings (whether prophetic words or mini-disasters) stores up judgment for the Day of the Lord. This is why, for example, God tells Abraham that he cannot yet inherit the promised land because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). A nation’s sin is like foaming wine that slowly fills up a cup. As rebellion grows, God sends warnings. If those warnings are rejected, the cup continues to fill until it is complete. Once that happens, God makes the nation drink the cup of his wrath.
While all sin fills up the cup, and while violence against innocents seems to be particularly egregious, violence against God’s people fills up the cup faster. In the Minor Prophets, foreign nations are frequently singled out based on their treatment of Israel. This flows out of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse.” Thus, in Zephaniah, Moab and Ammon, like Edom in the book of Obadiah, will be judged because of their taunts and revilings against God’s people (2:8-10)
So, there you have it: God judges all nations in history (not just his covenant people); He warns nations with mini-judgments; Failure to respond to the warnings fill up the cup of God’s wrath; Enmity and violence against God’s people fills up the cup faster.
Now, the question at this point is whether this pattern in the Old Testament carries through to the New Covenant era in which we live. Some might say: “In the Old Testament, God dealt with peoples and nations in terms of earthly judgment, but in the New Testament, that judgment is spiritualized. God now only deals with individuals, and the judgment in question is heaven and hell, not earthly catastrophe.” Let me say a couple things by way of response.
First, I don’t know of any passage in the New Testament that would teach that explicitly. So, if something like that is true, then it must be an inference drawn from certain other passages.
Second, we do have evidence in the New Testament for at least some of those four principles. For example, in Luke 13, Jesus is asked about two earthly calamities: a tower in Siloam fell and killed a bunch of people, and Pilate desecrated some dead Jews. Jesus tells us that these disasters are not about the particular individuals involved. Instead, they are warnings to others: “Unless you repent, you likewise will perish.” (I happen to think that these were warnings in particular of impending judgment on Israel, like in Amos 4: Unless Israel repents and embraces their Messiah, the whole nation will fall like that tower and be desecrated by the Romans, which is exactly what happens in AD70.) And though it isn’t a national judgment, Paul tells us that some of the Corinthians have become sick and died because of the corporate sin of that whole body (1 Corinthians 11:27-34).
Third, some might point to the transition from Israel as God’s people to the church as God’s people as evidence for the move from temporal judgment and salvation to spiritual judgment and salvation. God had an earthly people; now he doesn’t; he has a spiritual people. While there is some truth to that, I think the distinction actually works a bit differently. First of all, Israel wasn’t just an earthly people; they were always called to be a spiritual people (even if they failed). So the earthly/spiritual dichotomy doesn’t work in the Old Covenant, and I don’t see why it would work in the New. Second, in the Old Covenant, God only had one special people. Now, in the New Covenant, all peoples, all nations, are summoned to be God’s people. All nations are to come to the obedience of faith. We are called to disciple all nations, which includes teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded. And this obedience includes every aspect of a nation: from its worship to its morality to its politics and economics and art and everything. In other words, God’s people are now embedded among all nations, and when there are sufficient numbers of them, those nations as nations begin to be discipled.
So, from this very brief survey, I conclude that what we see in the Minor Prophets about God’s dealings with nations is still relevant for us in the 21st century, and it’s relevant whether you think America is a Christian nation, or was a Christian nation, or isn’t and never was a Christian nation. What then does Zephaniah have to say to Americans? We’ll look at three elements: Why does God judge nations? What should our response be to the possibility of God’s judgment? And if we respond rightly, what can we expect God to do?
Why Does God Judge Nations?
The following list is not exhaustive, but it does cover a range of issues that are relevant for us. And as we think about applications to our own day, we ought to be more confident about the biblical principles involved, and less confident about specific applications to our own situation, especially when those applications are not simple and straightforward.
God judges falsely blended religion (1:5-6):
I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.”
Zephaniah was preaching during the reign of Josiah, a faithful king of Judah who sought to reform the worship of the nation (2 Kings 22). Josiah recovered the law of God, and sought to remove entrenched idolatry, tearing down high places and restoring the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. However, it seems like at this point the reforms had not gone deep enough. There was lip service to Yahweh, but Baal and Milcom were still the true gods of the people. This means that false religion that tips its hat to Jesus, but doesn’t recognize his supreme authority as Lord is abominable to God. Swearing to the Lord but not following or seeking the Lord is wicked. Treating Jesus as one option among many, as one road up the multicultural mountain, as one ingredient in the American religious melting pot, is wicked. Jesus is Lord. Not Baal. Not Milcom. Not Allah. Not Buddha. Not Vishnu. Not the Mother Goddess of American Feminism. Not the generic God of “God Bless America” Civil Religion, of Moral Therapeutic Deism—the Indulgent Grandfather in the Sky who just wants us to have a good time and express ourselves as we see fit. None of those gods died for the sins of the world. None of those gods conquered death. None of those gods reign from heaven. Jesus is Lord, and nations that try to have it both ways are destined to be cut off, swept away, struck down.
God judges nations that are violent, fraudulent, and oppressive
(1:9): “On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.” It is a great evil to leap over the threshold, to barge into other people’s business, to recognize no limits to one’s desires, power, and authority. The refusal to recognize the rights and property of others, and the attempt to acquire them through violence or deception, is a great evil. Now, in our day, it would be worthwhile to talk about whether the State recognizes proper limits to its authority. But I want to mention the most egregious example of this evil in our nation. Abortionists are the quintessential violators here. They deceive vulnerable women: they lie about babies. They lie about the dangers of abortion for women. They lie about the emotional and physical consequences of killing an unborn child. And then, having deceived, they leap over the threshold and fill the womb—a place that ought to be safe and secure—with violence.
God punishes the complacency of nations.
“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.’” (1:12). I would venture to guess that a vast majority of Americans don’t believe that God would ever judge America for her sins. They are indifferent to God, because he is not real to them. Jesus won’t bless America, but neither will he judge America.
God judges nations that presume to be God.
“This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist.” (2:15)
“I am.” This is the name of Yahweh, revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. This exultant city thinks that she is untouchable, that she is God himself. When nations recognize no God above the State, it is inevitable that the State will aspire to be God. It will teach us to pray, “Our Government, which art in Washington, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy politicians’ will be done, in the States as in the District of Columbia. Give us this day our daily bread. Provide for all of our needs. And forgive our sins. Tell us that we are righteous. Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.” Such nations live securely. They think they will exist forever, that they are the Eternal City, the End of History. They think this because of their unmatched wealth, but “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD” (1:18). They think it because of their military might, but on the day of the Lord, he will cast down their “fortified cities and lofty battlements” (1:16). All great empires think they are invincible until God shows otherwise. Assyria thought it. Babylon thought it. Rome thought it. Where is their invincibility now? And what makes us think that America will be any different?
God judges nations that persecute and mock his people.
I mentioned the taunts of Moab and Ammon in 2:8-10 already, but I wanted to clarify something. Some Christians believe that the promise to Abraham underneath this verse (I will curse those who curse you) is applicable to the nation-state of Israel. As long as America supports Israel, God will bless us. If we abandon Israel, he will curse us. Now, I don’t want to focus on whether we should support Israel or not on other grounds (such as the fact that they are a functioning democracy, that other nations seek their destruction, etc). I want to focus on that theological rationale for supporting Israel. And I think it is fundamentally flawed. That promise to Abraham still holds, but it belongs to the true sons of Abraham, the spiritual sons of Abraham. In other words, the promise belongs to the church of Jesus Christ. Nations that persecute Christians, that kill them or mock them or oppress them awaken the wrath of Almighty God, the wrath of the Lord Jesus. Christians may endure suffering at the hands of ungodly nations, but we do so as those who have entrusted ourselves to the Judge of the Universe, knowing that he has promised, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
God judges nations because of their wicked rulers and officials.
Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy; they do violence to the law. (3:3-4)
In our day, this would include unjust bureaucrats, ungodly judges that pervert justice, police officers that gun down men without sufficient cause, politicians who accept bribes, legislators that protect Planned Parenthood, journalists who cover up the heinousness of evil, and religious leaders who seek to provide a veneer of spirituality over these abominations.
God judges nations that refuse his warnings.
“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” (3:7). As we watch the chaos unfold in the largely Islamic Middle East, as we watch it spread to largely secular Europe, are we taking the warning? Or are we more eager to do corruption? When God warns us through his word and through historical events (natural disasters, turmoil, etc), do we turn back to him and repent, or do we harden our hearts and continue in our rebellion?
If we recognize these sins in our own day and among our own people, what should we do? As the people of God, how should we respond?
Zephaniah tells us.
Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect —before the day passes away like chaff— before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD. Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD. (2:1-3)
Unlike the exultant city, unlike the false patriotism and national pride, we are called to humble ourselves and seek the Lord. We are to do his just commands, even if the rest of our society does not. Instead of lifting up our head in pride, we are to bow low in humility. This is one of the reasons we worship the way that we do. In the midst of a proud, decadent, violent, and rebellious nation, we gather together to confess our sins, to repent, to seek the face of God, in hope that he might pour out his grace upon us and through us upon our nation. And in Chapter 3, that’s exactly what he promises.
Zephaniah does not promise that the day of God’s anger can be averted; it might. God may grant repentance to us, as he did to Nineveh in the book of Jonah. But if we fill up the cup of his wrath, when the iniquity of the Americans is complete, God will pour out that cup upon this nation, as he has upon countless nations throughout history. But, in the midst of that judgment, he makes promises. On the other side of judgment, there will be unfathomable mercy.
“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. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD, 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.” (3:11-13)
Even in judgment, God will leave a remnant. The humble and the lowly will be left, and they will seek refuge in the Lord. He will change the speech of the nations to pure speech, so that we call upon his name (3:9-10). And that’s not all. He will take away the judgments against us (3:15). He will clear away our enemies. And most importantly, he will dwell in our midst (3:16). More than that, he will sing over us. “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:17). Imagine it. God justly and righteously brings the sins of this nation upon our head. He does to us what he did to Assyria and Babylon and Jerusalem and Rome. And then, in the midst of the ruins, in the midst of the devastation and the destruction (whatever form it takes), we lift our heads and what do we hear? Singing. Loud singing. Songs of Grace and Mercy from Almighty God himself. The God who judges nations is the God who sings over all of those who seek him in Christ in those nations.
And we don’t have to wait to hear the singing. He’s been singing in our midst, ever since the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the gospel of Jesus, he sings over you every day. He is there and he is not silent. He delights in you. He loves you. That’s what this Table is all about. Here is the King of Israel, in our midst. Here is the Lord our God, the Mighty One who Saves, present to us in the bread and in the wine. The reason we do not fear the Day of the Lord, whether we’re talking about the day of God’s judgment in history or the day of God’s ultimate judgment at the end of history, the reason we do not fear that Day is because of what this Table says. Here is the body broken for you. Here is the blood shed for you. Here is the wrath of God, absorbed by Jesus on your behalf. Here is the cup of God’s anger, drunk by Jesus on your behalf. So, come. Hear the glad singing of our great God. Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.