November 8, 2020

On That Day – Judgment and Grace

My wife recently ordered one of those kits that traces your family’s genealogy back to your people across the big pond.  She wants to know more about her roots.

You never know who is going to turn up in your family tree.  You are just as likely to have a horse thief among the crowd as someone of royal descent.

The Book of Zephaniah begins with the author providing the reader with a bit of the prophet’s genealogy.  When you read it closely, his genealogy says something important about this prophet’s message.

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.

So, the author goes back four generations to connect Zephaniah to his great-great grandfather Hezekiah.

Hezekiah might not ring a bell with you and me, but the reader of that day would have immediately recognized Hezekiah as a former king of Judah.

So, Zephaniah was a descendant of royalty.  Not only was Hezekiah a king, but he was the last of the good kings of Judah.

We are told about King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3:  “And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done.”

But when King Hezekiah died, the next king undid all the reforms he made.

That person was King Manasseh.  He promoted idolatry throughout his kingdom. He built pagan temples and even sacrificed one of his sons in the fires of Moloch worship.

If he would kill one of his own sons, you will not be surprised to know that he had no regard for God’s prophets.

In the central text of Judaism called the Talmud, it says that the prophet Isaiah was fleeing from his pursuers and hid himself in the hollow of a cedar tree.  When he was found, King Manasseh ordered that the tree be cut in half, killing the prophet that was hidden inside.

This gives added meaning to the words of the writer of Hebrews when he speaks of the prophets of old who “were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.” (Hebrews 11:37 NIV)

Perhaps that’s one reason there were so few people lined up for the job of prophet.

You were drafted for this job.  You did not go looking for it.

It says in the opening verse of this prophetic book that the “Word of the Lord” came to Sepanyah.  That’s how the prophet’s name is pronounced in Hebrew.  It literally means, “Yahweh hides,” or Yahweh protects.

There are many ways to interpret the prophet’s name.

One way to look at it is that the Word of the Lord had been hidden from the people for 70 years.  That’s how long it had been since Isaiah had been killed by King Manasseh, and since God had spoken through a prophet.

God’s word had been hidden, but now, the word of the Lord came to Sepanyah or Zephaniah.

King Amnon, who succeeded King Manasseh had been assassinated, leaving an eight-year-old boy named Josiah as the King of Judah.

In the first verse of the book which we read, it says that Josiah was king when Zephaniah received the word from the Lord.

In the beginning of the boy king’s reign, the High Priest made the decisions until the boy was old enough to govern.

Meanwhile, Zephaniah stepped onto the scene.  Not only was Zephaniah of royal descent, but did you notice in his family tree it said that he was son of Cushi.

The Cush people were African, quite likely from Ethiopia.  (659).

This means that Zephaniah was of a different race than the majority of those to whom he delivered his message in Jerusalem, but he had credibility because he was a descendant of Hezekiah.

Perhaps God chose Zephaniah to deliver his stinging message of judgment because it was a message of judgment to Judah, but also to the nations.

By using this man of mixed ancestry to proclaim the Word of the Lord to late 7th century Judah and to the nations, perhaps the people would be open to someone who could identity with them because he shared their own heritage.

In so doing, God showed that the color of one’s skin or a person’s genealogy does not disqualify a person from being used by God to share His divine plan.

We cannot look at someone and determine what’s in that person’s heart because of what a person looks like or because of where they came from.

As a man who was a descendent of the Cush people, his words should have had even more sway with the people of the nations.

As a descendent of King Hezekiah, his words should have held sway with the people of Judah and Jerusalem, but he might has well have been speaking into a thundering herd of camels because no one was listening to him.

What was Zephaniah’s message?

  1. He preached that judgement was coming.

Why? Idols, Baal worship, and idolatrous priests were the staple of the day.  People were worshiping the stars from their rooftops.  They were worshipping the god Molek.

No one was seeking God or inquiring of God.  People were violent and dishonest.

There was a complacency among the people.  They did not think it mattered how they lived their lives.  They thought, “The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad (1:12c).”

Zephaniah compared these complacent people to “wine left on its dregs.”

Dregs refers to the sediment or the residue left behind in the winemaking process.  It’s the part of the process that the winemaker throws away.

Someone trying to make good wine would never leave wine on the dregs.  It ruins the process of making good wine.

These people no longer cared if they turned into good people or not.  They did not care if they pleased God or not.  They did not care if they served God or not.

They didn’t think what they did mattered in the eyes of God, because they thought that God was the complacent one.

How many people today think God is complacent or that God doesn’t care what we do?

Zephaniah’s words are harsh.   They are difficult to read.

I thought they might have inspired a sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards in July of 1741, “In the Hands of an Angry God.”  It’s one of the most famous sermons ever preached in which Edwards warns people of the judgement of God and the dangers of hell.

But his inspiration apparently came from the book of Amos.  But it could have easily have come from Zephaniah.

14 The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.
15 That day will be a day of wrath—
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness—
16     a day of trumpet and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the corner towers.

17 “I will bring such distress on all people
that they will grope about like those who are blind,
because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
and their entrails like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”

In the fire of his jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth.

It pains me to read these words.   They are so harsh.  So final.  They are decisive.

They are destructive.  In chapter one, there is no grace.   No one is listening to God.

Many times, Zephaniah uses this phrase, “On that day,” or “That day.”  Did you hear that phrase?  It has both meaning for his day and for ours.

“That Day,” came to Jerusalem when the Babylonians came down and invaded the city and destroyed the temple.  It was swift, decisive, bloody, destructive, and life-changing.

“That day,” also has an apocalyptic application, which is a fancy word that means there is judgment day coming for all of us.

In Romans 2:5-6 Paul wrote:

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile… (Romans 2:5-6; 8-9 NIV).

2.  He Preached That Grace Was Available.

But, wait.  There is Good News! Zephaniah also had another message.  He also had a word of grace.  Turn over to chapter two.

Zephaniah told the people in Jerusalem and Judah that God’s judgment had yet to be metered out.  There was still time for them to change their ways.

Gather together, gather yourselves together,
you shameful nation,
before the decree takes effect
and that day passes like windblown chaff,
before the Lord’s fierce anger
comes upon you,
before the day of the Lord’s wrath
comes upon you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
you who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you will be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger.

There was still time for them to change their ways.  God was being patient.   Zephaniah was giving them the ample warning they needed.   But no one was listening.

The Apostle Paul and Zephaniah had these things in common.  Both spoke of “That Day” and both spoke of grace.

Listen to the rest of what Paul wrote to the Romans verses 7 and 10.

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

Once I was playing golf at the Sunset Country Club in Moultrie and my friend and I got caught out in one of those South Georgia thunderstorms rolled in quickly.  The rain was proceeded by lightening.

We were happy to find a shelter nearby.  Suddenly, golf seemed way down the list of importance.

Staying on this side of heaven was what was important.

Zephaniah told the people what was important:  “Do what’s right in God’s eyes.  Have some humility.”

God wants to shelter us, especially from the pain that we can cause ourselves.   He will shelter us in worship, as we pray, as we seek His wisdom, as we practice stewardship, as we seek to live out His word, as we follow His commandments, as we share with others.

We are not promised a lack of hardship in this world or even a lack of suffering.  God does promises to shelter us with glory, honor, peace, and eternal life.

After warning Judah, he warned Philistia, Moab, Ammon, the Cush people, who were his own people, the Assyrians, who destroyed the Northern kingdom, and Jerusalem, but it changed nothing.

It brought about this lament from God:

Of Jerusalem I thought,
‘Surely you will fear me
and accept correction!’
Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed,
nor all my punishments come upon her.
But they were still eager
to act corruptly in all they did. (3:7)

Who has ever heard a parent say when they were metering out discipline, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”?

God is saying this to Jerusalem.  “I thought of all people, you would listen.  I thought that of all people, you would fear me and change your ways.”

What was about to happen did not have to happen.  God was saying to them, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

We should realize that God still greaves when we do not listen and we bring upon ourselves our own punishment for not following Him.  There are consequences for wrongdoing.  If we live God’s way, we can avoid consequences we bring upon ourselves.  That doesn’t mean we avoid struggle, but we do avoid victimizing ourselves.

Zephaniah tried to get Judah, the nations, and Jerusalem to see themselves as they were and change their ways.

It’s very difficult to make changes in our lives until we see ourselves as we truly are and come to terms with who we are.   Until we see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, it is difficult for us to change.  Jesus sees us as people that need to be transformed.  “All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

The Good News is that transformation is possible.  We are redeemable and capable of being transformed into the likeness of Christ if we will humbly acknowledge and confess our deficiencies.  Otherwise, we will remain in denial and continue on a path that leads us to judgment.

Zephaniah was a one-man intervention committee who was sent to show Judah, Jerusalem, and the nations that their addiction to sin had created a downward spiral toward destruction.

God was saddened that none of them would listen.  All of them were in denial.

Are in denial this morning?  Are you listening to God today?

Do you have a feeling of emptiness?  Are you in a relationship where there is no intimacy, no trust, and no honesty?

Do you have no self-esteem?  Are you always angry at someone?  Are you always living your life through someone else, constantly looking for approval, seeking validation that you are worthy, that you are enough?

Are you living your life the way you want to live it without any regard to what think God says?

Do you live each day for pleasure?  Are you constantly anxious?  Are you constantly upset with yourself for making poor choices?  Do you make it worse by making the next poor choice?

I have some good news for you today.  God knows all about you and God just wants you to be humble enough to reach out to Him.  God will begin a process of healing in your life.

In chapter three, Zephaniah says that after Judah, the nations, and Jerusalem have been humbled by the events that will unfold, God will reach back out to them with grace and acceptance.

He told Jerusalem that a day would come when God would circle back and reclaim them.  He said that after they had been scattered that God would regather them again.

Listen to these concluding words:

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.”

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 honor 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 honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes [4] before your very eyes,” says the LORD.   (Zep. 3:17-20 NIV)

These are words of hope, that the Jewish and Gentile people would come home, that they would see that they had rebelled against God and return to Him.

Perhaps that’s what you need to do: come home to God.

There is an old hymn that I learn as a child.  The second verse says:

O for the wonderful love He has promised/
Promised for you and for me/
Though we have sinned He has mercy and pardon/
Pardon for you and for me/

Come home, come home/
Ye who are weary come home/

Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling/
Calling, “O sinner come home.”

What about you?

Does anyone need to come home to Jesus today?

Jesus invites us to find peace with Him.  Trust Him with your life today and see if there isn’t more joy and less judgment for choosing God’s way instead of your own.

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